Why Focusing On NOT Feeling Your Lower Back is Counter Productive And What To Do Instead!

Today’s iteration of “Technique Tuesday” is less about how we physically perform an exercise, and more about how we mentally approach an exercise.  Biomechanics geeks, we’ll hit you next time!

Something has been kicking around in my brain for the last 8 weeks or so since seeing the amazing Sue Falsone at Perform Better.  During a talk that looked at how pain affects mindset and movement, Sue said the following:

I’ve really been striving to incorporate this into my coaching at MFF, and I find myself focusing on this strategy most during one particular exercise:

The bent over row.

dbborow

Rowing is one of my favorite exercises, and the Bent Over Row can be an incredible for the whole body, but I often find that Ninjas either love it or hate it.  It’s either a whole-body affair, or there’s trouble with feeling it in their lower back.

If you’re doing bent over rows and you start to feel it in your lower back, you should stop, right*?  After all, at MFF we pass on the teachings of Stu McGill, and we know that repeated loaded flexion is deleterious to the lumbar spine, right? Being aware is a good thing, right?

After listening to Sue’s talk, I started to think other wise.  This morning I watched the following video from Harvard psychologist Susan David, and I’m starting to think that as coaches, we’re setting ourselves up for failure if we talk about the lower back too much.

Please give this a watch, then we’ll carry on.

If there are two phrases in here that are absolutely about Bent Over Rows, it’s the following:

What I worry about when there is this message of “be happy” is that people then automatically assume that when they have a difficult thought or feeling that they should push it aside, that it’s somehow a sign of weakness. And what that does, is it actually stops people from being authentic with themselves.

Additionally, when we consider Sue’s context of “start asking other objective questions” that matches Susan’s closing remarks:

“A better way to focus on happiness is for us not to be focused on the goal of happiness, but rather what it is that we value.  What it is that is important to us intrinsically.”

Sue Falsone and Susan David are both on the same page when it comes to the Bent Over Row, come on how cool is that?!?!! Allow me some creative paraphrasing:

“A better way to focus on [not feeling your lower back] is for us to not be focused on the goal of [not feeling your lower back], but rather [feeling the muscles that we’d prefer to feel supporting us in the hinge.]”

Harold Gibbons, dzuh!

Goddamn, how cool is that?!?

One of the reasons I’m focused on this is the reality that your lower back is most definitely going to be working during a bent over row.  Why’s that?

If we’re calling on the hamstrings for support in the hinge, and using the lats as prime movers, then you bet your kinetic chain your lower back is involved in the movement:

img_0240
Source: Anatomy Trains by Thomas Myers

The more frequently we seek to not feel our lower backs while rowing, the more we prime our brains to feel exactly what we’re trying to avoid.  This can apply to any movement, too.  The focus on not feeling our lower back becomes entirely counter productive.

A Shift in Focus

If we know that the old focus wasn’t quite working for us, let’s shift our focus to something else.  What DO you want to feel during a bent over row? Remember, this can also apply to what you want to feel during any exercise!

For me, the top two rowing muscles are the hamstrings and the abs.  These form a neat little support system that can best support us in our hinge, creating more comfort with the movement pattern and preparing us for better long-term physical awareness and performance.

In that plank position and in the hinge position, can you create tension in your hamstrings and in your abdominals/obliques? That’s our focal point, to maintain that tension.

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Its something that I cover in depth in THIS article about how we’ve practiced bent over rows at MFF, and the same guidelines can apply to any exercise.

Focus on feeling what you want to feel, rather than avoiding what you don’t want to feel.

For me this is far less about biomechanics and position and more about our mental awareness.  Where we we driving our focus? Are we using that focus to create the best experience possible?

That’s not a question specifically for fitness professionals, or people working through back hyperawareness on their own.  That’s a question for everyone.  While coaching a class or semi-private at MFF, I strive to guide Ninjas towards the positive focus of the exercise.

AND, if you’re in my class, or working out on your own, please seek that positive focus!  If you’re coaching or being coached, give this a try.  Focus on what you do want to feel, and let me know how it goes!

Disclaimer:  Before we go, please know: This is fitness advice, not medical advice.  I’m happy to have conversations about the nuances of awareness, sensations, discomfort, and pain in person, but if you’re not sure what you’re experiencing, press pause and please check in with a medical professional. I can recommend some of the best in the world, if you need help finding someone!

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