Put your back into your training without putting it out by using our expert’s advice to avoid these common injuries
Avoid these upper-back injuries
Kam Sowman has worked with elite athletes in the UK, Australia and New Zealand and has played rugby and rowed at an elite level. He now works at West London Physiotherapy as a neuromusculoskeletal physiotherapist specialising in neck and back injuries (westlondonphysio.co.uk).
The vertebrae that run from the base of your neck (lower cervical spine) to the middle of your back (thoracic spine) transfer power between your core and upper limbs, so this part of the back is crucial for upper-body compound lifts and rotational moves. The connection between the neck, shoulder muscles, ribs and arms means each part of your upper body is affected by the others.
1 JOINT INJURY
‘Hyperextension or overcompensating, such as curving your back too far during squats, can damage the facet joints that interlock the vertebrae. But the main cause is bad posture when sitting: the thoracic spine bends too much, making it stiff.’ PREVENT IT ‘Don’t slouch over your desk, and use a back support to engage the muscles around your spine. Keep the joints mobile at your desk by rolling up and down on a foam roller when your back feels tight. Before overhead and rotational exercises, work on shoulder mobility by lying on your back with your spine flat and arms overhead. Then keeping them on the floor, palms up, arc them around until they’re by your side. Repeat ten times.’
2 RIB JOINT INJURY
‘Muscles in your neck attach to the first and second ribs. Doing exercises with your neck in a vulnerable position – such as with your chin jutting forward – can damage the facet joint surfaces. Over-exertion pulls the ribs up, causing stiffness or even compressing the nerves in the neck. Rotational moves under load can also injure the rib joints.’ PREVENT IT ‘Do resisted rotational moves such as cable twists. Stand side-on to a cable station, holding the handle with straight arms, and rotate your trunk to pull the handle across you. Also, avoid bringing the bar behind your neck when doing lat pull-downs – this pushes your head forwards.’
3 MUSCLE STRAIN
‘The erector spinae muscles, which run up either side of the spine, are the most likely to be injured around the upper back. Strains often afflict the upper trapezius, levator scapulae and rhomboids. This is common when relying on your upper shoulder muscles rather than lower ones when doing a seated row, or going too heavy when bench pressing.’ PREVENT IT ‘Increase the blood flow to these muscles with five minutes of gentle rowing before a workout. Then build up to your working set with light weights. After a workout, stretch each muscle group statically twice for a minute. For example, to stretch your upper traps, raise your shoulder blades slightly and tilt your head to one side.’
4 REFERRAL PAIN
‘The facet joints are vulnerable to overload. Poor neck positioning and technique, typically caused by lifting weights that are too heavy, can injure the discs, joints and muscles in your neck and this can be felt as pain in your upper back.’ PREVENT IT ‘Fix your posture by tucking your chin in slightly until you have a bit of a double chin, and stretch your neck regularly by looking left and right as far as you can without turning your body. Hold for five seconds.’
Matthias Steiner dropped 196kg on his cervical spine at the 2012 Olympics
– and was fine