Monday, February 21, 2011

Correcting Excessive Lumbar Extension - "Ribs Down"

I am sure many of you have faced this situation in the gym:
Client is performing an exercise (let’s say a RDL) and his or her chest is rounded over.
You:  “Try to get your chest up!”
Client:  Arches low back to get chest out.
You:  “No, don’t arch your lower back, just get chest out.”
Client:  Has no idea what to do, gets frustrated, and throws a few choice words your way (okay, so maybe no cuss words... at least I hope not :).
This is a common mistake I see with a lot of new clients at IFAST- the tendency to arch their low back into hyperextension when performing many exercises (deadlift variations, squat variations, anything overhead, birddogs, etc.).
This is a problem because when someone is in this position they are less effective at stabilizing their “core”.  Imagine your core as a canister with your diaphragm forming the top and your pelvic floor the bottom.
If you arch your low back too much, then instead of the diaphragm and pelvic floor facing one another, they will be facing more anteriorly (it kind of looks like a clam shell opening up).   Because of this, when you take a big breath in to fill that canister it is not able to pressurize and stabilize you as well.  This is why I am not a fan of articles that tell people to arch their low back hard during big compound movements - they lose their stability.
Sometimes, this is just how the person stabilizes his or her self (with erectors), while other times people just do not have good body awareness and cannot find that neutral spine position. 
When I first started training people, this was hard for me to correct.  I would always just tell them not to arch, but that was usually unsuccessful.  Bill Hartman recently showed me a good way to cue people out of this. 
First, stand behind the person and place your hands around him or her and onto the bottom of his or her ribs (make sure the people you try this on are okay with it, of course :) ).   Next, pull their ribs down toward their pelvis.  This will help them return to a normal, slight lordotic curve in their low back. 

At first, you may have to keep your hands on their ribs throughout the exercise, but after a while try to allow them to find a neutral spine position.  If they begin to arch their low back too much give them the cue "ribs down" instead of placing your hands on them.  At this point, they will know what this means and hopefully, they will have the body awareness to correct it.
Try this out and let me know what you think!


  1. This is a common phenomenon that I've not only seen with many people at the gym but with myself in the past, as well.

    Often, people do not know the difference between a neutral and an arched lower back. For that reason, I'll always demonstrate the difference to my clients.

    Personally, I place my hand on the area at which they should bend at (like a karate chop) and tell them to straighten their back around that area. Then, I'll put my finger between their shoulder blades and instruct them to crush it (a la Dan John).

  2. @Clement- Thanks for the comment and tip. I also place my hand between clients' shoulder blades to get them to retract. You just have to be careful because a lot of people will substitute back extension for scapular retraction.
    Take care!