Over the past decade training has clearly moved from a sagittal plane orientation to an emphasis on unilateral training and multi-planar training. Part of this process, particularly for athletes, has been a push toward developing flexibility in rotation. Any athlete competing in a sport that required rotation, like baseball, hockey or golf, was blindly urged to develop more flexibility in rotation. Like many performance coaches, I fell victim to this same flawed concept. I was one of the lemmings that I dislike so much, blindly following the recommendations of others and using exercises that I would now consider questionable or dangerous. Interestingly enough, as a back pain sufferer, I simply wrote off my discomfort as age-related and continued to perform rotary stretches and dynamic warm-up exercises.
Reading the work of physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann made me reconsider my position and eventually eliminate a whole group of stretches and dynamic warm-up exercises that were once staples of our programs. Sahrmann in her book Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, states "during most daily activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk…A large percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at the L5- S1 level. " (2002 p.71) The lumbar range of motion that many personal trainers and coaches have attempted to create may not even be desirable and is probably potentially injurious.
The ability to resist or to prevent rotation may in fact be more important than the ability to create it. Clients or athletes must be able to prevent rotation before we should allow them to produce it. Porterfield and DeRosa in another excellent book, Mechanical Low Back Pain, come to the same conclusion as Sahrmann. Porterfield and DeRosa state "Rather than considering the abdominals as flexors and rotators of the trunk- for which they certainly have the capacity- their function might be better viewed as antirotators and antilateral flexors of the trunk." (Porterfield and Derosa, WB Saunders 1998, p99)
Sahrmann goes on to note a key fact that I believe has been overlooked in the performance field. "The overall range of lumbar rotation is ...approx 13 degrees. The rotation between each segment from T10 to L5 is 2 degrees. The greatest rotational range is between L5 and S1, which is 5 degrees…The thoracic spine, not the lumbar spine should be the site of greatest amount of rotation of the trunk… when an individual practices rotational exercises, he or she should be instructed to "think about the motion occurring in the area of the chest" " (Sahrmann, p61-62)
Sahrmann places the final icing on the cake with these statements; "Rotation of the lumbar spine is more dangerous than beneficial and rotation of the pelvis and lower extremities to one side while the trunk remains stable or is rotated to the other side is particularly dangerous." (see figures 1+2) (Sahrmann p. 72)
Interestingly enough Sahrmann agrees with the conclusions of Barry Ross. Ross recommended primarily isometric abdominal training for his sprinters. Sahrmann concurs; "During most activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk which, as discussed, is limited in the lumbar spine." (Sahrmann p 70)
Most importantly, what does all this mean? For me it means that I have eliminated the following stretches that attempt to increase lumbar range of motion. This includes Seated Trunk Rotational Stretches (Fig 1) and Lying Trunk Rotational Stretches (Fig 2).
I have also eliminated dynamic exercises designed to increase trunk range of motion such as Dynamic Bent Leg Trunk Twists (Fig 3), Dynamic Straight Leg Truck Twist (Fig 4), and Scorpion (Fig 5).
My conclusion. Most people don't need additional trunk range of motion. The evidence from the experts seems to be clear that what we really need is to be able to control the range that we have. Although this may seem extreme to some, I have seen a significant decrease in the complaints of low back pain since eliminating these exercises. In fact, a great deal of our emphasis is now placed on developing hip range of motion in both internal and external rotation. I think the future will see coaches working on core stability and hip mobility instead of working against themselves by simultaneously trying to develop core range of motion and core stability.
Porterfield and DeRosa- Mechanical Low Back Pain, WB Saunders 1998,
Sahrmann, Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, Mosby 2002