The actions of fighting arts (including combatives and self-defense systems) and combat sports place regular high stresses on the spinal column. I’ve previously mentioned the anterior-posterior compressive and shear forces that affect the lumbar spine, but not the transverse rotational (torsional) and lateral compressive forces that actions like punching, kicking, throwing and falling places on the thoracic spine. Basic fighting postures, such as a standing guard or striking can encourage thoracic kyphosis and lateral asymmetry. Left unchecked, torso actions can become plagued by dominant muscular patterns of imbalance to one side or the other, as a result of a favored limb or ingrained movement compensations due to faulty stabilization or movement system activity. Over time these muscular imbalances can lead to vertebral facet degradation and arthritis, disk herniations and ruptures, nerve entrapment and bone spurs (typically in the direction of excessive muscular tension), all of which translate to reduced performance.
An easy assessment for asymmetry and imbalance is to simply watch someone throw a few crosses from their preferred front stance, observing the punch performed on both sides of the body. If the shoulders or pelvis tilt from perpendicular to the floor, or displace laterally past the outer edge of the feet, it’s a sign that control and proprioceptive awareness of the spinal column is compromised. Another simple but telling assessment is to have the individual lay flat on his or her back and simple roll their body over onto one side or the other. Ideally, the torso should begin rotation first; if the individual has to move a limb before the torso, or the torso moves in segments starting at the neck, the spinal stabilizers and/or movement system are imbalanced. In addition to an increased risk of chronic or eventual major injury, these movement imbalances and their associated compensations can drastically reduce movement efficiency and force production capabilities throughout the entire kinetic chain- meaning that movement (and therefore techniques) in all planes of motion will be affected.
The actions of a fighting art or combat sport are integral to the activity’s particular goals, so simply avoiding them is not possible. One useful preventive strategy is to include planned “deloading” weeks in a skill training schedule. For example, if a group is practicing a high volume of stand-up fighting skills, a week of recovery should be included for every 3-4 weeks of that skill set. The recovery week may consist of practicing other skills that don’t place as much stress on the spinal column, practicing related skills at much lower intensity, or best yet, taking a break from the skill set altogether and implementing a corrective exercise, mobility and flexibility program. If you are reluctant to take a week off from practicing a specific skill set, don’t worry- a week is not enough time to lose conditioning adaptations (it takes roughly 4 weeks for de-training to get fully underway), and chances are good that you will feel, move and perform better after a week of relative recovery.
A useful first line of defense against kyphosis is using self myofascial release on a foam roller to mobilize the thoracic vertebral joints. Maintain a “drawn in” and braced abdomen throughout and be careful not to roll too far onto the lumbar vertebrae. If you experience pain at any point along the thoracic spine, stop and get yourself assessed by a sports medicine professional (pain is distinct from discomfort- the first few SMR sessions can be uncomfortable, with more discomfort being present in areas of higher muscular imbalance and repetitive trauma. Acute pain and radiating nerve pain are signs of a potentially serious problem). Use a relatively forgiving foam roll, as opposed to a dense or hardone.
Below is a supported version of the thoracic mobilization. This is useful for an individual who is just starting to work on t-spine mobility with SMR, or individuals who have poor proprioception of the spinal column and torso:
A more dynamic version, suited to individuals with good proprioception and control:
The “Brettzel” mobilization exercise below is an excellent way to maintain properly aligned transverse mobility and encourage optimal balance of the spinal stabilizer/mover systems (this comes from Gray Cook and his excellent Functional Movement approach to athletic training):
This mobilization exercise targets the thoracic spine in particular, and can both highlight and correct muscular imbalances from overuse. Try including it in class for a week or two and you will likely notice a positive difference. If you have a hard time proprioceptively feeling the cues mentioned in the video, perform it with a partner watching who can indicate when your pelvis, spine or head are out of alignment or moving at the wrong times in the stretch. As always, be sensible about it, and if any part of this stretch elicits pain in your back, get yourself assessed by a sports medicine professional. It may not bother you now, but it will eventually (as an aside, I exchanged a few emails with a long time karate practitioner who suffers from a nerve entrapment caused precisely by years of asymmetrical spinal movement during forceful kihon. In his mind, a specific action caused the acute manifestation of severe pain, totally unrelated to his training patterns. The x-ray and MRI told another story of repetitive overuse and muscular imbalance that developed over years of repeated actions & imbalance with no correction).