The Myth and Danger of the “flat back” Cue During Exercise

Every day in practice I have to redirect the good intentions of other clinicians, coaches and trainers. The reason for this redirection is simply because the cueing can be incorrect. I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus here but the fitness industry has unfortunately adopted a training cue of “flat back” when prepping an individual for an exercise.

I’m not exactly sure where or who came up with the “flat back” cue but it is unfortunately incorrect and potentially detrimental to the lumbar spine (lower back) of the individual prepping his/her body for an exercise or movement. The spine derives its structural support from being in LORDOSIS. Lordosis is achieved when the lumbar spine from the L1 vertebral body is positioned over the sacrum in a 35 degree curve (give or take a few degrees). Research shows the importance of the 35 degree lumbar lordotic curve is multi-factoral but for my post today I want you to think of the following three points:

1. By maintaining lordosis, especially while under load such as in a weight bearing exercises (squat, deadlift, plank etc), the fluid within the discs of the lumbar spine stay put. In the simplest of terms, no hydraulic pressure changes occur and the disc fluid will not move and potentially bulge.

2. When the lumbar spine maintains its lordosis the integrity of the nervous system remains in-tact. What this means is the spinal cord and nerves exiting the spine have no pressure changes over them by the osseus (bone) structures of the spine. With ideal nervous integrity the brain will allow for better neural drive (neurological horse power) so we can exert more muscular force for the task at hand. This ideal neural drive will create less of a potentially injurious environment to our working muscles simply because muscles receiving good neurological signaling won’t strain. Conversely, muscles receiving less than ideal neural drive will have to over-work to perform the task at hand leading to potential strains and over-use syndromes.

3. The true role of the core is to stop the spine from moving in the presence of motion. That being said, while in lordosis, the lumbar spine is in ideal position to create a platform for which the musculature can act to stabilize the spine so the core can transmit energy to the powerful muscles of the upper and lower extremities. Without proper lordosis, energy will leak and powerful prime movers such as the glutes, quads, lats and pects won’t be able to contract with maximum efficiency resulting in lack of output and thus inefficient movement.

When starting a movement with a “flat back” you’ve in essence taken away the spine’s protective mechanisms and its power production capacities. So how do we prep the spine for activity? What should we cue? I typically like to cue my athletes and patients to do three things while setting up for an exercise:

1. If standing, simply squeeze the glutes. This places the pelvis and the lumbar spine in a neutral position or what I like to call “neutral lordosis”.

2. Brace the core by using intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) to push OUTWARD throughout the entirety of the musculature of the core. Basically, pretend you’re wearing a weight belt and you are trying to fill every bit of space between the belt, your abs, obliques and lumbar paraspinals. The cue I like to give is “cough and hold” or “clear your throat and hold”. For individuals who have been belly button sucking in, (which is INCORRECT!!!) this bracing mechanism will be very foreign and challenging to achieve. Coughing or clearing your throat will automatically engage the proper musculature to ensure proper IAP and the bracing mechanism.

3. If you are standing and prepping for a squat or hip hinged and prepping for a deadlift or simply standing to do bicep curls or laying face up to do bridges push your knees laterally (right knee to the right and left knee to the left) while maintaining heel and toe contact to “set your glutes”. This will engage the glute medius which adds stability to the lumbo-pelvic complex and preps your glutes action.

So, if you are cuing “flat back” or are using “flat back” you are robbing your client’s/patient’s and/or your own spine of structural support and increasing risk of injury and sapping your horsepower. Use the aforementioned techniques for true lumbar safety, strength and overall better function. And most importantly “PROTECT YOUR BACK”.