Jiu Jitsu is all about moving your body. Understanding how to create the best conditions for movement is vital to developing your Jiu Jitsu. And one skill above all others is critical—learning to move while maintaining a neutral spine.
A neutral spine protects you from injury and creates a stable base for Jiu Jitsu’s athletic movements. Every aspect of your Jiu Jitsu improves when you learn to maintain a neutral spine. Your takedowns get better; your passing is quicker and more balanced; your base is stronger; everything you do is better.
What Is a Neutral Spine?
The back is made up of three segments: the lumbar, thoracic and cervical.
Each has a natural curve and keeping those curves is considered the neutral position. This is the position of not just stability but strength.
To understand the neutral spine, it is helpful to know that the body is designed with muscles for different purposes. The muscles of the limbs—the legs, hips and arms—are designed for motion. The muscles of the spine are designed to stabilize against motion. Core muscles help hold the spine in neutral.
Neutral spine, right, with all three curves of the back in alignment.
“Although motion through the back is only natural and promotes healthy tissue, our spine is at its strongest, most resilient and most supported position when it is in neutral,” writes Stuart McGill, Ph.D. McGill is a professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada where he has a world-renowned research clinic devoted to studying back pain and rehabilitation. McGill is considered the expert on issues related to the back and spine. Back Mechanic: The Secrets To A Healthy Spine Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You is essential reading for all Jiu Jitsu students. (I picked up Back Mechanic after injuring my hip and neck. The book has helped me tremendously in recovery and totally changed the way I look at exercise. See more at www.backfitpro.com)
McGill has spent his professional career studying movement and its relation to the spine. Motion is meant to occur through the hips and shoulders and not through the spine, McGill writes. “Limb movement from limb muscles requires a stiffened torso. This principal is at the root of great athletic performance.”
“Athletes with techniques who create a lot of spine motion when it is under high load instead of taking advantage of the motion and power production in the hips will either hurt their backs or limit their performance. The great Jiu Jitsu masters utilize spine mobility when the loads are low but stiffen the spine in neutral to create terrific hip power for high performance and resilience.”
– Stuart McGill
Moving With The Hips
“The hips are designed to bend (ball and socket joints) while the spine is a flexible rod with discs as joints that follow different rules. We restore the painful back of Jiu Jitsu practitioners by reducing bending during the day. This includes replacing situps with stir-the-pot exercises (see video below). Athletes have less pain and better performance,” McGill writes in an email conversation with Zenyo Jiu Jitsu.
At Zenyo Jiu Jitsu, we teach that every single thing we do in life is a skill—and all skills are learned through practice. A great deal of our practice is dedicated to learning how to move through the hips while maintaining a neutral spine.
Many people have difficulty stabilizing the spine. Tight hips from too much sitting leads to spinal movement. During Jiu Jitsu training, a flexed spine presents a threat for injury and limits your strength, power, reaction and balance. All aspects of Jiu Jitsu suffer from allowing the spine to dominate motion instead of the hips.
The basic unit of movement for the human body is the hip hinge. The hinge is comprised of the two dominant motion patterns: flexion and extension. Learning to hinge at the hips is the start of good movement and spinal safety. ,
How To Hip Hinge
At Zenyo, we use the hinge in all our training. Learning to hinge properly is critical. All movement patterns should be built around knowledge of the hinge.
To practice, you need a straight bar. A PVC pipe works great.
Hold the bar behind your back, touching the back of your head and hips. As you hinge at your hips, you get immediate feedback if there is motion in the spine. The hips should move; the spine should not. Training this motion daily is a great way to increase your movement knowledge and skill.
Protecting From Injury
Jiu Jitsu presents a unique challenge to the human body. Not only are we required to move in novel ways rarely present in other sports, but also prevent others from moving us in dangerous ways. Jiu Jitsu requires us to be proficient from standing, crouching, kneeling, squatting and lying positions. Almost no other sport demands such a variety of body positioning.
It is a challenge to keep a neutral spine while transitioning through each of these positions—from standing to kneeling to lying. At Zenyo, we focus on hip hinging during these movements, and not flexing through the spine, which presents reduces the risk of disabling back pain.
“The spine bends much like a bending rod,” McGill writes in his email. “The discs deform to allow the bending motion. Imagine taking a wire coat hanger and bending it back and forth over and over. Eventually the material will fatigue and break. The spine experiences the same cumulative effect with repeat bending when combined with high load. Instead lock the back when high loads are created to leverage your opponent or to create a pry motion from a leg-foot or arm-hand contact.”
“Recent investigations into injury mechanisms have revealed that many back training practices actually replicate the loads and motions that cause the parts of the low back to become painful and even injured. For example, pain is often triggered with repeated forward flexion motion of the spine in the jiu jitsu athlete more than heavy load. Better skill means less force is required.”
Courtesy Back Mechanic, by Stuart McGill
Building A Strong Back
To build a strong, stable and pain-free back, you need to focus on keeping your spine in neutral. This is easier said than done. In Jiu Jitsu, there is so much going on at once it is easy to lose focus beyond the most instinctual reactions.
Focus requires practice and dedication. “Being mentally aware and engaged in our movement patterns is fundamental in creating pain-free posture and movement. Your success rests in your ability to move mindfully and to be conscious and aware of your movements. Be aware of your spine posture,” McGill writes.
Practice the spinal stability exercises listed below daily. They build muscular fitness, stability and control and equally develop the core muscles that support the back while increasing their endurance.
Lastly, pay attention to how you have learned to exercise over the years. Many of these exercises, like bridging and sit ups, may not best prepare the athlete who becomes sore before they properly train to high levels of proficiency.
“The jiu jitsu athlete generally does better training back muscle endurance, as opposed to strength. For many, it is better to train spine stability rather than stretching to increase range of motion – keep the mobility training for the hips and shoulders.”
With knowledge, focus and practice, you will be on the way to a long and healthy Jiu Jitsu career — and life.
Special thanks to Professor Stuart McGill for taking the time to share his thoughts on back health in relation to Jiu Jitsu.
The Big 3: Exercises For A Strong Back
McGill’s research has found these exercises to be best at building muscular fitness, stability and control.
• The Curl Up
• The Bird Dog
• The Side Plank
• (Advanced exercise: Stir The Pot)