Spinal kyphosis: Treating cavemen posture.
By Jasper Remmerswaal
Terminology for reading this article:
- Postural deviations: a posture that is abnormally different from a healthy posture.
- Kyphosis: A backward curve of the spine
- Thoracic spine: The part of the spine that runs along the height of the thorax. Basically the part of the spine that is connected to the ribs.
- Osteoporosis: A disease in which the density of bones decrease, meaning they get more and more brittle over time.
- Back extensor muscles: Muscle involved in extending the back (think: hollow back).
- Postural muscles: Muscles influencing the posture.
- Isometric: A contraction of the muscle with no change in length of the muscle (often stabilizing, example: lower back in a deadlift).
- Shoulder retracting: Pulling the shoulders back (shoulders blades towards each other).
When reading this article, notice the stuff written in the brackets. These are the more thorough explanations of the subjects discussed. If you do not understand the explanation between brackets, try to read the text without them. It does not matter if you skip these parts.
Many people have probably noticed that the average gym bro nowadays pretty much moves and looks like a monkey. The head sticks out, the shoulders are rounded forward and the upper back reminds one of the Hunchback of Notre-Dame story. Contrary to popular belief, the bro’s do not do this on purpose. Many athletes (and people in general) suffer from bad posture these days. In this article, one of the most common postural deviations will be discussed and methods will be given in order to treat these postural deviations. We refer to this problem as an excessive ‘kyphotic spine’ or an ‘exaggerated curve of the thoracic spine’. All medical terms aside, please look at the picture below!
A healthy spine does not have a straight I-shape, but more of a curved, slight S-shape. But when the curve along the thoracic region of the spine is exaggerated, one ends up with a forward head, forward shoulder posture and a hunchback body. This can result in a number of health complications, with the most common one being back pain. But the main issue with this postural deviation is that general appearance suffers from it a great deal and that the deformed spine has a big impact on performance (you wíll lift less). A kyphotic spine can be caused by a number of things. Here, only postural kyphosis is discussed, but a kyphotic spine can also be caused by osteoporosis for example.
Now that the problem has been identified, what are common methods of treating it? Strength and endurance of back extensor muscles are very important for maintaining normal postural alignment.1 In order to fix posture, it is important to train these muscles. For the sake of simplicity: The easiest way to do this is to focus on horizontal pulling, meaning one should focus on training the muscles of the upper back, especially the ones between the shoulder blades. *A common misunderstanding is that one should train the lats, which isn’t entirely true. (Hardcore explanation: one of the functions of the Lattisimus Dorsi is internal rotation of the gleno-humeral joint, because of its insertion at the medial/anterior side of the humerus. This means that overactive lat muscles will pull your shoulders forward.)
As stated before, the easiest method is doing lots of horizontal pulls. An athlete should therefore include lots of rows in his training. Someone suffering from excessive kyphosis should at least pull/row double the volume that they push. Every kg bench press should therefore equal 2 kgs in a horizontal pull as a rule of thumb. Barbell rows, dumbbell rows, seated rows (one of my personal favourites, this stuff always works) and other variations are suitable solutions for curing excessive kyphosis. My personal view on this is that one should keep the shoulders down and back throughout the whole movement (using the postural muscles in an isometric fashion) as I find that mimicking the correct posture during the exercise is very effective at helping people maintaining correct posture when not doing the exercises. Someone with bad kyphosis might not even be able to keep their shoulders retracted (=back) during the exercise and it may be uncomfortable for them. If this is you, experiment with this but don’t push it.
- Roghani, T., Zavieh, M. K., Manshadi, F. D., King, N., & Katzman, W. (2016). Age-related hyperkyphosis: update of its potential causes and clinical impacts—narrative review. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, 1-11.
- Willem Snellenberg, (2016). Handboek sportmassage.
- Jeffry M. Spivak, MD (2016). http://www.spine-health.com/conditions/spinal-deformities/kyphosis-causes-and-treatment.