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Anatomy of an Injury: Back

by Robb Beams


Last time we discussed the three various types of injuries: Mechanical, Chemical and Mental. This week we will look at the injuries associated with the core and back and how to offset with strength training and flexibility.

Injury Reduction NOT Elimination

The reality of exercise and racing is that athletes will become injured from time to time. The key is to minimize the athlete’s exposure to injuries through nutrition, hydration, strength training and flexibility. However, a typical stumbling block for athletes is that they are willing to sacrifice correct form for the sake of exercising (lifting weights, implementing plyometrics, stretching, sport specific skills and drills) which leads to technical mistakes and biomechanical compensations – this leads to excessive stress on muscles, tendons and ligaments.

As a human performance coach for 28 years, I have the incredible responsibility of determining how much “risk” to expose the athlete to on a daily, weekly and annually basis in an attempt to improve the athletic capabilities of an individual without crossing that fine line into over training, biomechanical mistakes and ultimately the creation of an injury. Obviously there are numerous variables that have to be factored into the athlete’s ability to absorb their training and avoid overtraining symptoms: sleep, nutrition, and hydration, sport specific training, cross training, massage, foam rolling, stretching and more.

With all of these demands being placed on your core and back, it is imperative that you take a pro-active approach to your strength and flexibility without creating muscular imbalances.

With this being said, I adjust an athlete’s training volume and intensity levels based on age, field testing results, personal and professional schedules, etc. For example, I don’t have my young athletes doing the same workouts as the more mature and experienced athletes – adjustments have to be made based on this status. Charles Poliquin, uses the term Technical Failure to define a point where an interval or set needs to be terminated when the athlete is no longer capable of doing another repetition with correct form and hence defaults to poor form or technical “cheating” to complete the next repetition.

Your ability to improve indefinitely is all about staying away from illness and injuries. It is more important for an athlete to be able to come back tomorrow and resume training than to “dig deep”, jeopardize form to make a training log look good and cross that fine line into overtraining and muscular compensation which leads to muscular, tendon and/or ligament strain which leads to weakness – the exact opposite goal of training.

Train and Race without Pain

When you are executing any form of exercise (strength or cardiovascular) ask yourself this question: “Does it hurt?” Your answer should always be NO – without exception! I have received the response, "it doesn’t hurt after a long warm up". No matter, you are injured. I can give you multiple examples of this rationalization of pain. Remember, the pain we are speaking about is the pain associated with movement. This is not the same residual pain associated with the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – this discomfort is associated with the intended breaking down of muscle tissue, NOT within the joints, tendons and ligaments.

As stated by Michael Boyle, “Pain at the onset of an exercise is neither normal nor healthy, and is indicative of a problem. Progression in any exercise and performance program should be based on a full, pain-free range of motion that produces muscle soreness without joint soreness. If you need to change or reduce your range of motion, there is a problem that needs to be attended to.”

Pain Site vs. Pain Source

To help you alleviate your pain, you need to differentiate between your Pain Site and your Pain Source. Think about this statement. If your lower back is in chronic pain, you need to understand that it is because your back is doing the majority of work associated with movement that other synergistic muscles should be helping the back to complete. Another example is knee pain on the outside of your knee. You “feel” the pain at your knee; however, the source of your pain is up in your hips which pull on your ITB which inserts on the side of your knee (where you are feeling the pain). Unfortunately, most of today’s medical treatment is about covering up the problem with prescription drugs, rather than looking deeper into the source of the pain. With this being said, before we look at the various injuries associated with the core and back, let’s review some basic anatomy to help you understand the way the core and back should work together to create movement without pain.

Spine Anatomy

Your back and core work in conjunction with your spine to provide the foundation for nearly every moving activity which keeps these muscles constantly engaged. Your sport specific strength and endurance is directly related to the strength and endurance of your core and back muscles – sounds elementary, but a consistent source of frustration and pain for most athletes.

Your core and back have double duties: provide the foundation to generate power within your legs, stabilize your spine and pelvis and have the necessary endurance to maintain proper biomechanics for maximum efficiency, speed and endurance. With all of these demands being placed on your core and back, it is imperative that you take a pro-active approach to your strength and flexibility without creating muscular imbalances.

Your spine is the fundamental pillar of your body and is broken down into three sections of vertebrae: Cervical (7 vertebrae), Thoracic (12 vertebrae) and Lumbar (5 vertebrae); technically the Sacrum and Coccyx are part of the spine, but beyond the scope of this article. Click here for an illustration of the spine.

An important fact about the back that is frequently overlooked is that the vertebrae are stabilized and held together by ligaments. If these ligaments are overstressed (i.e. asked to carry excessive load), the vertebrae that is the anchor of a specific muscle become jeopardized.

Additionally, muscles of the back attach to different vertebrae; it is beneficial for you to understand the bones of the spine when it comes to determining your source of pain. Remember, you may feel the pain at a localized spot; however, it usually is a result of the muscle being tight that either originates or inserts to that specific bone. Ultimately, you will learn how to start at the pain site and trace it backwards to the pain source.

Back Musculature

As outlined by Dr. Shannon Sovndal, “multiple layers of muscles provide support for and movement of both the spine and the shoulders”. Similar to looking at the sections of the spine, think about your back muscles in three sections as well:

  • Upper Back Muscles: Trapezius, Levator Scapula, Rhomboid Major and Minor: raising of your shoulders
  • Middle Back Muscles: Rhomboid Major and Minor work in conjunction with the middle fibers of the Trapezius to pull your shoulders back and together
  • Lower Back: lowering of your shoulders
The spine is supported by the Erector Spinae Muscles, which run the length of the spine. Think of these muscles as your shock absorbers of your spine – these muscles absorb your impact activities

Source of Back Pain: Weak Butt Muscles (Glutes)

Top exercise physiologists propose that the quickest way to stabilize the back is to strengthen (or at the least activate) the butt muscles (glutes). According to Michael Boyle here at the top four syndromes associates with weak glutes:

  1. Low back pain relates strongly to poor glute activation, weak glute function which causes excessive low back compensation
  2. Hamstring strains relate strongly to weak glute activation
  3. Anterior (front) hips pain relates to poor glute activation. This ties directly to poor biomechanics of the hamstrings as hip extensors
  4. Anterior knee pain relates strongly to poor glute (specifically the medius) strength or activation

Strength Exercises to Engage the Glutes

Strength Exercises for Back Strength

Prior to lifting any weight, make a conscious effort to stiffen your core prior to moving – visualize as if your belly button is piercing your spine. Here are three steps to reduce the load levels placed on your spine and transferred over to your muscles (your actual goal):

  1. Tense the muscles of your abdominal cavity and then visualize being as tall as possible. This facilitates keeping your lumbar section stiff so it forms the natural arched (verses being rounded or over-arched).
  2. Pull your shoulders down and back to “lock” your shoulders in place. The muscles that stabilize your shoulder blades originate on your upper spine so this helps stabilize your upper back.
  3. Contracting your butt muscles (glutes) “locks” your sacrum and lumber sections, making your lower back and hips move as one unit. This is very beneficial when you are completing a push up or pike position.

Remove the Guesswork

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Core Musculature

Working in conjunction with your back muscles and spine, your core helps establish a foundation for strength, stability, power and endurance. Low back pain is often a result of weak abdominal muscles not being strong enough to counter the powerful muscles of the back. If your back muscles become over developed, this can create stress within your spinal cord leading to vertebral instability and lack of balance. As mentioned above, muscles attach themselves to the spinal cord. If either your back or abdominal muscles are over developed, this will literally pull you spine out of alignment. This is often referred to as a “slipped disk”.

An additional function of your core muscles is to create a stable platform for your legs; your hip joint and pelvis are stabilized by your abdominal and back muscles. Please note, this doesn’t mean that your pelvis isn’t moving, but rather that your back and core is working in unison to provide the proper pelvic position specific to your sport without fatiguing. If your core and back muscles are not locking your pelvis effectively, you will not perform at your fullest potential.

A unique characteristic of the core muscles is that they are able to create movement in more than one direction: bend forwards and backwards, rotate to the left and right and bend from side to side. Similar to looking at the muscles of the back in sections, think about your core in layers: superficial, intermediate and deep layers.

Superficial layer:
External Oblique: flexes the torso to one side or another; aids the Rectus Abdominus in flexion.

Intermediate layer:
Internal oblique: flexes the torso to one side or another; aids the Rectus Abdominus in flexion.

Deep layer:
Rectus Abdominus: flexes the upper body forward
Transversus Abdominis: primary role is to help with exhalation and create stability within the abdominal wall during high intensity efforts (intervals and/or racing effort)

Strength Training for your Core

Side Hip risers
Open Rotation
Hammer Abs
Pike on fit ball
Pike – Side to Side
Ab crunch on fit ball
Hanging Knees to Chest

Simple test for Sciatica Syndrome – click here

Nutritional Support

Adequate protein intake provides the muscles that you are strengthening the amino acids needed to rebuild torn down muscles associated with load bearing exercise. For more information about protein, please click here and read this article.

Next time we will discuss: The Anatomy of an Injury: Shoulders. If you have any questions or need anything clarified, please email me directly.

Until next time, Train Smart-Not Hard!
- Coach Robb

About the Author: Coach Robb has been working with riders and racers since 1987 and is the founder of the Complete Racing Solutions Performance System, the Mental Blueprint of Success, the MotoE Amateur Development Program, the MotoE Educational Series and Nutritionally Green Supplements based out of Orlando Florida. is a premium resource center for motocross, supercross and GNCC riders of all abilities and ages. Visit & subscribe to his bi-monthly newsletter that outlines the training solutions used by Factory KTM/Red Bull’s Ryan Dungey, Star Yamaha’s Jerry Martin and Alex Martin, RCH’s Brock Tickle, Factory Kawasaki/Pro-Circuit’s Adam Cianciarulo, multi-time Loretta Lynn’s & Mini O Champion’s Jordan Bailey (Factory Monster Energy/Kawasaki) GNCC bike racers Charlie Mullins and Chris Bach, and GNCC Quad racer Roman Brown along with thousands of riders all around the world!

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    Mark Smith July 01, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    Coach Robb,
    Have you considered "sleep posture" in back health? My thoughts: I'm 61 and in good health. I still ride dirt bikes, jog 2 miles a day or go to the gym during the Winter and stretch. After shoveling wet and heavy snow this past Winter and being careful to not stress my back, the repetitive lifting and twisting must have aggravated my lower back because the next day I had back pain and numbness in my right leg which lasted for about a week. I've had this pain before and knew it would go away but noticed that it was similar to what I felt at times in the mornings when I didn't do anything to cause pain. After "experimenting" a little with my sleep posture, I noticed that a fetal position provided comfort but having one leg pulled up and the other extended put pressure on the lower back even though I use a pillow under one leg to relieve some of the pressure. So my "take away" from this is that I'm more conscious of my sleep posture than before since I spend a good part of everyday sleeping. Your thoughts?

  2. Gravatar
    Coach Robb July 13, 2016 at 12:15 am

    Thank you for leaving your thoughts/feedback here at RacerXVT! I appreciate your insight and discovering what aggravates your back. However, I am not sure what you are asking me.

    If you don't mind, would you please let me know what you want my opinion on? I apologize for any inconvenience this may have created for you.
    -Coach Robb

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