Update: Read Back Brief by our own Robert Miller, CPT and CES, for some ideas about how to prevent and fix lower back and hip problems associated with fighting arts training.
Lower back pain is an issue that affects a large percentage of the US adult population. Although I don’t have any numbers at my fingertips, I’d be willing to bet that lower back pain affects fighting arts practitioners more than the average population, with a larger percentage occurring in so-called traditional arts. Particularly those karate, kung fu and taekwon do groups who place an inflated value on very long and deep stances. The rationale usually goes that holding a longer and deeper stance increases leg strength and mobility, so all students should start out as low and deep as possible.
Standing in a very long stance places the lower back into lumbar hyper-extension, or exaggerated lordosis. The longer you go, the harder it is to use the abdominal stabilizers and gluteal muscles to do part of their job- stabilizing the torso in an upright position. The hip flexors and spinal extensors are shortened and tight in this positon, and are likely already prone to overactivity from repetitive kicking and punching actions without much complementary conditioning for the posterior kinetic chain. Tight and short hip flexors further inhibit the activation of the abdominal and gluteal muscles, leading to eventual prominence of the lower gut, weak core stabilizer muscles (which in turn increase risks for lower limb injuries), reduced hip mobility, lower back pain and the likelihood of a ruptured disc in the lumbar spine.The illustration below demonstrates normal spinal curvature and exaggerated lumber lordosis:
Assume a very long stance and notice that the longer you stretch it, the harder it is to use the gluteal muscles and rectus abdominis to extend the hips and stabilize the pelvis to maintain a neutral lumbar spinal curvature. Lunging and thrusting motions should bring to mind the reverse punch, a staple of many karate practitioner’s practice. The more you thrust and absorb anteriorly directed impacts in this position, the more the posterior facets of your lower spine and associated ligaments have to absorb. Your lower spine is not meant to do this without the help of the gluteals and abdominal stabilizers. Without their involvement, the vertebrae at the bottom of the spine are now in the unfortunate position of having to absorb the compression and shear forces of lunging or thrusting motions:
A more effective approach to lower body strength and power development for martial artists is simple: squats, lunges & cleans, along with activity-specific skill and partner work. The other retort to the “longer and deeper” fixation is that holding fixed positions increases isometric stabilization within that posture- but does not increase dynamic strength or speed throughout the range of motion. Standing in a low, deep stance makes you good at, well, standing in a low, deep stance. True-believers of this method will often point out that Sensei so-and-so adopted a higher stance in his older years because he “had mastered the long stance” and could now do it his own way. It’s much more likely that these individuals simply cannot move the way that they used to before a lifetime of encouraging poor movement patterns took it’s toll on their bodies. The higher stance is a reflection of acquiescence to deeply ingrained movement compensations resulting from inhibited prime movers & stabilizers and dominant synergists (although a higher, more natural stance makes more sense from a mobility and force production perspective anyhow).
From a performance perspective, it’s also worth noting that with the rear leg fully extended and the foot kept flat on the floor, the gluteal muscles are placed in a shortened position, which further inhibits them and reduces the amount of force that they can produce, as well as the degree of stabilization that they can provide to the pelvis. The compression that this creates between the femoral head and acetabulum (hip socket) can lead to bone degeneration, ligament damage and hip flexor tendinitis (hence the reason that a long time practitioner of these methods may be forced to shorten the stance in order to move). It’s no coincidence that it’s not difficult to generate a list of well-known karate practitioners who have had hip replacements. One may be able to continue to produce similar levels of striking power by adopting movement compensations, but these in turn will lead to further injury higher up the kinetic chain.
For injury prevention strategies, check out the links posted at the top of this article, or contact one of us for consultation and individually tailored corrective programs.