Partner can assist with alignment for back exercises

I’ve never been one for cliff diving. It’s the fear of the unknown. What is under the water? Rocks, sewer-gator, nothing? I don’t know nor do I wish to find out. 

On the other hand, I am perfectly comfortable with diving boards. The water in a pool is clear and I can see where I will land. Nothing to fear. 

I’ve observed that training the back is a similar situation for some, as cliff diving is for me. But it doesn’t have to be. Since people don’t have eyes in the back of their heads, seeing their spinal alignment is difficult. And if you can’t see your back that may be enough reason to fear movements that involve the use of it.

Learning to be aware of your spinal position is relatively easy but does take some practice. Since you can’t see your back, you have to feel it instead. I call it making a mental inventory. I do this by putting someone into a position where their back is straight and tell them to mentally memorize that position. I then guide them slowly through the first movement or two as they “get the feel for it.” After they have demonstrated proficiency, I watch subsequent repetitions like a hawk and make corrections as needed. 

Good Mornings, one of today’s exercises, is good for teaching this principle. There is no weight needed and the back stays straight through the whole exercise. It’s a very simple drill that has a high return in teaching you to feel your spinal position. 

I recommend you use a trainer or gym buddy to watch you. Keeping the whole spine straight means keeping the head in a neutral position as well, since the neck is also part of the spine. If you’re in the middle of a Good Morning, you’re looking at the ground. If you turn your neck to check your position in the mirror, you are already out of alignment because your head is bent. Another set of eyes will prove helpful as you learn what a straight back feels like.

Keeping a neutral head position may prove more difficult than you think. For some reason, we get programmed to keep our heads up so we’re aware of things around us. Keeping a straight back and neck during exercise requires the neck to be in its neutral and safe position. I even find myself making this mistake.

The back extension is another good exercise to help you learn spinal awareness. The version today may be different from what you are used to seeing in the gym, and that is by design. Doing back extensions is similar to doing the Good Morning. The difference is that the back extension uses more body weight than the Good Morning. 

There are many types of back extension machines. The one featured is a glute-ham development machine. Other versions are angled and have adjustable positions to accommodate users of different heights.

This type of machine has been around for decades and most gyms have one. There are also a variety of exercises to be done on them. For the sake of teaching spinal awareness, I’ll stick to the one featured today.

Both the Good Morning and back extension are powered by the glutes and hamstrings. We teach spinal alignment with them, but let there be no mistake that the prime movers are the glutes and hamstrings. This fact becomes important when you start doing multiple repetitions. You should feel these in the butt and back of the thighs. If your low back starts to burn before your bum then you’re probably not using your glutes. The calibrated eye of a trainer can tell the difference. 

The fact that neither exercise requires weights makes them ideal for fitting into a routine. Do them during other core exercises or as an active warm-up. The focus is to control the movement and feel the position the spine is in. Be sure to check out the videos online to help calibrate your eye to see both the correct reps and the form flaws.

Chris Huth is a Las Vegas trainer. He can be reached at Consult your physician before beginning any exercise program.

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