After you have read “The Perfect Workout,” you will have a basic understanding of the eight steps, in the right order, to use as the backbone of your workout. Step One (discussed here) of your workout, involves rolling out soft tissue knots and tight areas with the foam roller, or a small ball (or pair of balls).
Now it is time to move on to Step Two, which is all about improving mobility. Mobility is becoming one of my favorite subjects lately, and I have been working diligently to improve my own. It is not a complex subject; mobility is simply the ability to move. As it relates to exercise, mobility is about the ability of every joint in your body to move through its natural range of motion. Now, there are many, many joints in your body…somewhere between the mid 200’s to mid 300’s (the definition of “joint” is a bit fuzzy). Most of those don’t need a lot of your attention. But before you stress your body with exercise, it is good to circulate a bit of synovial fluid (the stuff that lubricates joints) and wake up the millions of mechanoreceptors that live around your major joints…especially the ones you plan on taxing during your workout.
I have many tight and not so smoothly moving areas that I like to focus on, but the one area I’d like to talk about at length here, because I am certain that we all share this issue, is the thoracic spine.
Think about your posture. Adults with CF very commonly have poor posture, and most of us with poor posture know that it is a problem. The causes of the problem are many. First, we are getting older, and with age comes increasing reinforcement of poor movement patterns. The body adapts perfectly to what is asked of it. If you start slumping your shoulders when you sit at the computer, or drive, or breathe, the body decides this is the position it is to always assume. Second, with age comes bone loss (especially in CF), which can lead to osteoporosis and subsequent hunching of the upper spine (technically called kyphosis). Finally, as breathing mechanics change with increasing lung disease, there is consequential structural alteration of the thoracic cavity that worsens kyphosis.
Why is this? Because the body tries to offset or balance the increased hunching (kyphosis) of the thoracic spine with an over-pronounced swayback of the lumbar spine, also known as lordosis. This leads to pelvic and hip problems, and the result is a mess. Sounds bad, right? It is, and the worst part is that all of this leads to a very common problem in adults with CF, back pain. The picture below illustrates this problem.
The thoracic spine is actually supposed to be very flexible. It is supposed to flex, to extend and to rotate. In contrast, the lumbar spine is designed more for stability and less for flexibility. Sadly, most people have this backwards, and tend to use the lumbar spine more than the thoracic and hips for bending and rotating. This often leads to pain, and commonly to injury. Because the thoracic spine in CF tends to be even more “frozen” in place because of the above-mentioned issues, pain is extremely common.
But wait, there’s more. Pain is bad enough, but what is worse is that the combination of poor posture and pain leads to inhibited airway clearance, less expansion of lung tissue and deteriorating lung function. Stiff and unmoving thoracic vertebrae also increase the work of breathing (isn’t it hard enough?). None of this is good. Not good at all.
But here is the good news: Some of the postural problems in CF can be corrected. Those having to do with muscle and soft tissue tightness are reversible! Stiff joints can be mobilized with specific exercises and soft tissues can be stretched to allow for normal alignment and movement.
This is why at least 10 minutes of your workout should be spent waking up and moving your thoracic spine. If you are like me, you literally need to teach your brain exactly where this part of your back is, and how to move it because of something called sensory-motor amnesia. This is exactly what it sounds like: When you don’t move a body part much, the brain 1) forgets where it is, and 2) forgets how to move it.
I’m Convinced. What Should I Do?
First, take a breath and don’t panic. Then, check with your doctor and make sure these are safe for you, especially if you have osteoporosis. Next, to get a rough assessment of the amount of kyphosis in your upper spine, do this test.
Lie down on your back with your feet on the floor, knees bent to about 90 degrees. Now press your low back into the ground and keep it there as you do the following: bring your arms up and over your head, keeping them straight with your biceps muscles close to your ears. Don’t move into pain, but see if you can bring your wrists and back of hands to the ground above your head. If you have normal thoracic mobility, this is a breeze. If you can’t, you are like me and have some pretty stiff and sticky thoracic vertebrae. The following exercises are for you. If you can, and want to keep it this way, the following exercises are for you.
1)Spend quality time with your double tennis ball contraption (link) every day…before your workout as I discussed in the previous article, and also throughout the day, especially if you sit at a desk a lot. If you are bigger and have more muscle mass, you might graduate to double lacrosse balls. This is not in my future.
2) Roll your upper back with a foam roller. As you do this, bring your hands behind your head and keep your elbows close together (this gets your shoulder blades out of the way). Slowly roll up and down the spine, stopping at the neck above, and the lowest rib below. Try to “curl” yourself around the roll by aiming the top of your head to the ground. If you have tight spots that are slightly uncomfortable, spend some time there.
3) Get on hands and knees and push your butt slightly back toward your heels. Now take one hand (for example, the right) and place it behind your head by bending your elbow. Now, keeping your butt back, rotate your spine by reaching the right (bent) elbow toward your left knee. Come back up and do this several times, slowly. Repeat on the other side.
4) Stay on hands and knees, but this time sit all the way back onto your heels. Take right hand again behind your head, and now rotate it up, toward the ceiling, trying to open your chest to the ceiling as well. Don’t move your butt–this is keeping the lumbar from moving, thus isolating the upper back. Repeat on the other side.
The sensory-motor amnesia problem is a bit more complicated, but can also be remedied with some drills taken from a system called Z-health. I am currently immersed in learning Z-health and will write more about it in future posts, but these are some basic exercises that will begin waking up and mobilizing the spine. Try them and then retest with the “raising the hands over the head” exercise. My bet is that it will improve. I don’t start my workout until I can do this without discomfort (but it has taken awhile to get there). Start slowly, but be persistent and patient. Your spine and lungs (and posture) will thank you.