You are as old as your spine

by Ryan Wagner

This is an old Chinese proverb, as I’m lead to believe. Although I can’t trace the origin, it’s good advice nonetheless. But what does this really mean on a practical level?

I’m as old as my spine? OK, well, what can I do about it then? This week (and I admit, it’s been a while since my last post #noexcuses) I want to talk about just that – the actionable things you can do to protect your spine and keep your healthy foundational movement.

Let’s count down 6 things:

Cat cow

If you’re a yogi, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The venerable cat cow movement is a staple in most yoga practices. It’s a great way to introduce some movement into the spine and help lubricate your discs.

Keep your back straight in the deadlift

It’s easy to say “keep your back straight,” but sometimes more difficult in practice for new lifters. Especially when keeping your back straight means maintaining your back’s natural arch – but if it’s curved how can it be straight?! That question confused me for much of my early twenties.

Have you ever sat in a fancy chair with lumbar support? It maintains a curve in your lower back, right? That’s because your body’s natural spine is actually in a curved position. It is in this alignment that your body’s vertabrae are stacked normal to one another. That is, one vertebrae is stacked flush with the other. And as you can imagine with a kitchen table that wobbles, you want to have flat surfaces adjacent to one another. Otherwise, they are going to wobble. And that’s exactly what happens when you don’t have a straight back in heavy lifts like the deadlift and squat. Your vertebrae are stacked unevenly with one another and therefore have a tendency to press out your disc – not good.

Keeping a straight spine is akin to building a strong stone column, where each stone is flush against the other and therefore, willing and able to transfer load safely.

Your lower spine want to transfer load, not move (much).

If you look closely at the anatomy of your lower spine, you see that it is resistant to mobility in comparison to the thoracic spine, at least. This means that what your lumbar spine really wants to do is to transfer load, not move. This see this pattern through our body’s kinetic chain, when we have one joint that is set up for high levels of mobility, the adjacent joint is very stable. Take your ankle for instance, it can move all over the place, right? And what about the joint right above it, your knee? Not so much, right? It’s a hinge joint. It can really only move about one axis. And the next joint up, the hip. Similar to the ankle, it has high levels of mobility. The next joint family up the chain is your lumbar spine, and your lower spine wants to transfer load efficiently and safely. To do this, it needs to stay relatively rigid.

So, when you’re lifting something heavy, be it in the deadlift or squat, I want you to think of your lower spine as a strong lever. That’s where you are transferring load through. Tighten that up and keep it tight during movement and you’ll keep yourself in a safe place.

Master the body weight squat

If you have traveled around the world to some of the less developed counties, you’ve undoubtedly seen the locals sitting in what you might call a full squat position. In the weight lifting world we have been conditioned to think of it as the “ass-to-grass” squat, but that’s honestly not the best way of looking at it. Instead, think of this as your body’s natural resting position. Unfortunately, very (very!) few people can comfortable sit in this position with feet flat on the ground. Sometimes it is honestly a matter of less than ideal hip anatomy (of which you can’t do anything about), but more often than not, I’d argue that it is a consequence of tight muscles and poor ankle and hip mobility. This is something you can work to improve. And you should improve it because having good movement through your ankles, knees, and hips will enable you to move freely and comfortably for many years to come.

But what about the spine? This is a blog post on the spine, isn’t it? I’m talking about the bodyweight squat because it is actually a great resting position for your lower back. When you squat down like that, it opens up your lumbar spine and helps you to lubricate those discs. Next time you have a sore back (for non-clinical issues only), try resting in a full squat position and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Draw some hip squares

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you probably have weak hip flexors. If you sit all day long and type on a computer, there is a better than average chance that your pelvis is rotated forward a bit. Of course, always have a professional take a look at your anatomy before just believing everything that I say, but odds are that yes, you are going to be tiled a bit forward as a consequence of our sedentary lifestyles.

Hip squares are a great tool in the toolbox that you can use to combat the ill effects of, say, running or hiking long distances with a slightly askew pelvis. Here’s a video to help you out:

Don’t be afraid to move it

As I write this, I’m seated on a 3:45 minute flight home from Mexico and I’m starting to feel a bit stiff. Therefore, the best advice I can give you to help keep your spine young is to MOVE IT OFTEN. When you start feeling stiff, that’s your cue to get up and move. Your body is screaming at you to get the hell up! It doesn’t really matter what it is that you do, you don’t have to be in a gym and go through your mobility program for it to be “right.” Instead, you just need to be moving. So, whether you are in an office, a car, or a plane, don’t be afraid to move around and stretch and do what feels good.

Us humans simply aren’t meant to conform to squishy seats and type on a computer (no, not even the “ergonomic keyboards”). We are meant to move. And if you want to move well into old age, you better not be afraid to get up and move around when you body tells you that that’s what it wants.

Wrap up

This isn’t an exhaustive list of smarts things to do to keep your spine healthy, but it’s a start. And if you have clinical issues or have had slipped discs or herniation in the past, always be sure to speak with your doctor about your best course of action. But for healthy individuals, the 6 items above are a good place to start.

Stay safe everyone,


P.S. Do you have questions? I have answers and if I don’t, I’ll do my best research to find the answers. Shoot me an email at [email protected]

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