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Axial Loading and Avoiding Injuries

Updated: May 6

First things first, let's talk about the axial skeleton. The axial skeleton comprises 80 of the 206 bones that make up the human skeleton. Such bones include the vertebral column, the rib cage, the skull, and one associated bone. The remaining bones are referred to as the appendicular skeleton. In regard to lifting, the axial skeleton sees the most stress from anything that applies direct force along the vertical axis of a structure, such as squatting with a barbell, deadlifting, carrying variations, and basically anything that applies downward force on the vertebrae either directly or from the shoulders.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the axial skeleton and how it can be loaded, we can discuss what happens when axial loading causes issues and how to work around them. Axial loading injuries include disc herniations, vertebral fractures, and injury to the surrounding musculature. For simplicity's sake, I'm just going to cover a couple preventative measures that can be used to reduce risk of these injuries.

When it comes to weight bearing athletes, proper force transmission from the legs to and through the spine is important. Being able to achieve the appropriate amount of mobility from the hips/pelvis can help avoid over-recruitment of the lumbar region. To do so, you will want to make sure that their hip flexors aren't too tight. You should also consider abdominal bracing, as a weak brace can also be problematic. This will help avoid an anterior pelvic tilt, which can lead to hyperextension of the lower lumbar vertebrae. Working on a strong abdominal brace can also help correct this issue, as strong abdominal muscles can help pull the pelvis into a more posterior tilt while maintaining a more rigid structure throughout the entire trunk. This helps prevent any problematic torsion and extension of the spine.

Another muscle group to look at are the erector spinae, which are the long muscles in the back that span from the thoracic region to the pelvis. These muscles usually work isometrically to keep the spine in a "neutral" position under load. Since they work isometrically, they operate more for endurance than strength. Once these muscles become fatigued, the likelihood of deviating from this neutral position becomes  greater.

So, what should you do to work on these muscle groups and help with avoiding risk of injury? For hip flexors, strengthening and stretching will both show benefits. Just because something is tight, doesn't mean that stretching will be the cure. Running through loaded hip flexion movements: one thing you could try is wrapping a resistance band around the bridge of the feet and keeping one leg planted on the ground. Then you bring the opposite knee up while maintaining a flexed foot. This makes the hip flexors the primary mover and can help strengthen them. However, my personal favorite stretch for the hip flexors would be the super couch. For this stretch, you start in a half kneeling-ish position with the back leg in a forced fully flexed position at the knee, using a wall or couch as the reference, and extending the hips. Heads up, this one sucks… a lot. When it comes to bracing, there are many variations that can be used, but my favorite is planks, weighted planks to be specific.

For weighted planks, the weight should be placed on top of the sacral region to provide beneficial stimulus. While performing the plank, make sure to que a hunch that pulls the rib cage and pelvis together.

Training the erector spinae can be viewed with a more vague scope since these are postural muscles and are always doing their job. However, when under increased loads, like when you’re deadlifting or squatting, these muscles will be taxed even more than usual. Conditioning them to handle these increased loads can be as simple as applying greater training volume to your squatting and deadlifting variations with decent form. You can also target them more exclusively with exercises that focus on hip extension, such as a 45 degree hip extension or glute ham raise, for high reps while applying an external load.

There is a lot more to cover when it comes to this topic, but hopefully this helps you cool cats and kittens out when it comes to not fucking up your back.

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