Stiff Spine? Try these on for size!

Happy Monday everyone! I hope you all had a great weekend and a good day today. I wanted to start a new series on ways you can loosen up your stiff spine, which will get your body primed for a solid workout.

These are some of the movement progressions I learned during my time working through the Certified Applied Functional Science (CAFS) and Fellow of Applied Functional Science (FAFS) Mentorship program.  Dr. Gary Gray and Dr. Dave Tiberio are the brains behind the Gray Institute, and are both world-renowned physical therapists who derive unique solutions for individuals functional and biomechanical performance and rehabilitation ambitions.

If you would like to learn more,  visit

One of the main principles I learned is the importance for individuals to not only be able to demonstrate adequate mobility within certain “transformational zones”, or joint movement sequences, but just as important, to be able to demonstrate adequate stability within the range of motion as well. Subsequently, Gray coined the term “MoStability” to describe these two phenomenon.  This concept is true in every joint of the body, but especially in the back, as it is the crossroads of force transmission in the body.

Today in particular, we’ll focus on Type I motion at the spine.

(Zilker Park in Austin, TX is amazing, right?)

What Does It Do?

This exercise drives spinal motion in the transverse and frontal plane, which are two key planes that are often left out of conventional exercise warm-ups and training programs.

Why Do I Need To Do This?

Many studies show that individuals who have a stiff spine, and lack usable spinal motion due to lifestyle factors (think: desk jockey, looking down at your cell phone all day, prolonged sitting, etc.) are linked to increased chances for back pain. In fact, one study showed that individuals present with hypomobile spines  went through even more compensated movement at the lumbar spine when reaching arms up overhead when compared with individuals who had more normalized motion. This tends to lead to a variety of biomechanical health issues, including, but certainly not limited to: shoulder impingement, neck pain, chronic low back pain, limited hip/ankle range of motion, etc. In short, its important to work in different planes!

If you have a particularly stiff or painful spine, start with the beginning progressions where you are seated with arms wrapped around your chest.  Starting slow, working at initial range are great ideas when working on novel movement.

As things start to be less painful, gradually increase range of motion.  Work toward achieving the same range of motion in each direction.  Please also note that the side that feels tighter may not always be the side that needs more motion, as it might already be at it’s end range.

Once you feel more confident, add in arm drivers, add gradual speed, and eventually, light dumbells.  Always letting pain and tightness be your guide.

If at any point in the previous progression I listed you cannot move on without feeling pain, stay at that point in the progression, and work slowly and deliberately through 10-20 repetitions, then take a break. Do this for a few sets, and leave it be for the time being. The next time you try the movement out, only drive within the speed and ROM that you started off with the time before, and gradually attempt for new motion, but always stopping before the point of pain.

It is important to have an appreciation for thresholds.  Pushing through pain is generally not a good idea, with the understanding that people’s perception of pain is different and sometimes can be confused for discomfort.  It can take time to learn more about your body to be able to gain enough repetitions and responses to those repetitions to distinguish the difference between the two.  Discomfort is typically something you can work through gently, and will not exacerbate symptoms.

Still having pain despite trying all of this?  There may be a dysfunction happening elsewhere in the body that is causing your spine to stay in that position.  It could be a limitation at the hip, the ankle and foot, or even a cervical spine limitation that is causing your body to stay fixed in that position.

When Should I Do This Movement?

This exercise is great to include as a part of your dynamic warm-up (You DO warm-up, appropriately before you train, right?). I know it sounds silly, but “tissue creep” is a very real phenomenon that occurs every day, especially for desk workers and individuals who stay in one position for extended periods of time. Without getting too complicated, tissue creep sets in after about 30 minutes of an individual remaining in the same position, and is characterized by a stiffening of body tissue (fascia, muscle, nerves) in that position; hence, the stiff spine! Over time, this is what your body thinks is “normal”, and this new position pulls the skeletal structure itself out of a more balanced alignment.

So give it a try and let me know your thoughts!


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