It’s the end of a long training week for me and I’m sitting down listening to the stereo and drinking coffee. This has been an excellent week’s training in Informed Performance; the MMA Team had their trials on Thursday night, the teenagers are starting to come of age (literally and figuratively), the first ‘rebooted’ children’s class of the new year took place yesterday and the jiu jitsu… well, let me tell you the jiu jitsu has been amazing.
This week I’ve put in 17 hours on the mat just training. I’ve put another 4 in just coaching. With work and family I can’t train like this all of the time, but when I do I always add an extra few percentage points to my game. It’s been a hell of a week tapping and being tapped, sweeping and being swept. Trying new positions and solidifying old ones, and rolling a lot. I estimate I’ve done about 40 rounds all week with my jiu jitsu brothers and sister (singular). My back and neck usually play havoc with me when I do this but they haven’t bothered me a bit. Which is good, and it’s also the topic of this article.
In radio they call that a link, but I prefer the term segway.
If you’re reading this and you’ve trained in grappling for any length of time, then you’re probably looking at the screen from a jaunty angle because of an old neck or back injury, or you’re sitting hunched over in a pain free position because of a fresh one. Yes, our necks and backs take some punishment in this game. The general approach to neck strengthening and mobility varies from the idiotic to the ignorant, with some good stuff in the middle. A lot of people work on “stretching” and mobilising their cervical spine, mobilising the lumbar spine (this is particularly common) and are fairly passive about the thoracic region. (That’s your mid back, not somewhere near Bulgaria) Another approach is to spend a lot of time bridging on the neck and head in the hope of strengthening the neck. While this approach has its merits, they mostly lie in beginning that process at an early age and working on it into adulthood. I wouldn’t recommend beginning such an extreme routine in adulthood without adequate preparation for the compressive forces that bridging entails.
So let’s have a look at your neck and back. There are 3 sections we’re concerned about. The cervical, thoracic and lumbar vertebrae. Let’s simplify and refer to these vertebrae and their associated musculature as the upper, mid and lower spine.
We are all rightly concerned about our upper spine in particular. A devastating neck injury frightens everyone involved in heavy contact sports, and due to its position outside of the armoured torso, the cervical spine is an area of particular concern to us. This makes it vital to train. However we should steer away from mobilising the upper spine, Put simply, the role of the muscles around the neck is not to be flexible; they are there to act as stabilisation and armour in the case of impact or when we are put in positions where the neck is compressed or extended (think neck cranks or stacking). The lumbar spine is similar. We want a strong, stable lumbar spine, not a mobile one. People often confuse hip mobility for lumbar mobility in this case. As a quick exercise, in your current seated position, rotate your torso to the left, keeping your hips as they are and your shoulders and head as they are. As you pull your left shoulder back, take notice of the area of your back that is “moving”. It should be your mid spine. That’s the thoracic spine. This should be the most mobile region of the back. Mobilising this area through stretching and mobilisation exercises should be your goal in warm ups and stretching sessions.
If you’ve been around our gym for a while, you may have heard Will’s “mobility-stability” speech in which he runs the length of the body from ankle to head, pointing out along the way where we want either quality. It’s simple- ankle mobility, knee stability, hip mobility, lumbar stability, thoracic mobility, scapular stability. Let that guide your stretching and mobility work and you won’t go far wrong.
See you on the mat!