Do you have pain or soreness sometimes in your lower back? It could be muscular (outside the spine) and it could be structural (inside the spine).

It was encouraging to see this discussion Why Swimming Increases Low Back Degeneration, on Dr. John Mullen’s Swimming Science website.

The article differentiated between ‘low back pain’ and low back ‘disc degeneration’ – the two may be happening together or may not. What this means is that you could have both, or you might feel pain while there is no degeneration inside the spine structure, or you might not feel pain but still have degeneration that could be seen on an MRI.

Pain is just a messenger. We still have to examine carefully what is causing it and address that cause, not simply do something to cover up the pain. And, pain is actually a gradient, from the slightest tightness to the most excruciating pain. Long before the strong pain signal comes, the body gives subtle signals that something is wrong. You might not feel pain, per se, from a degenerating disc, but there will certainly be other indicators that something is falling apart down there, if only you would pay attention and take the signals seriously.


Enough Core Strength?

In the connected article by Dr. Mullen Do I Have Core Swimming Strength? he noted it is not sufficient to run a basic test of core strength on land because this so-called ‘core strength’ encompasses strength in the different directions that the body can bend (the different planes). One would have to run several tests to check the strength in those different directions.

Then we would need to ask: Does the swimmer have core strength in the plane that is relevant to this stroke style? Is the land-based exercise or test confronting strength on that plan? And, even if the swimmer demonstrates strength in the test on land, in the water is the swimmer actually applying that strength in that plane during the stroke? 

How the body is executing that part of the stroke matters. The variations we see in strokes and kicks and undulations and in the body line are not the same mechanically – they load the body differently. A small adjustment in how one moves can shift how the spine is carrying (or resisting) the load placed on it by the swimming action. Just because a swimmer has some impressive measurement of core strength on land does not mean he is automatically applying that strength in the water. Even if he is applying that strength it doesn’t mean he is automatically applying it appropriately. It takes a process of examination, adjustment, testing, reassessment to dial in a swimmer to safer and stronger movement patterns. The more intense the swimming goal, the more intense this refinement process needs to be.


More Risky Stroke Variations

The low back degeneration article discussed (mostly elite) swimmers in general. Though Dr. Mullen noted that he has addressed the myth of breast and fly strokes being more problematic for the spine (he feels they are not), this article did not differentiate between which stroke styles create a higher rate of low back problems.

It would be insightful if we could isolate a particular stroke style – I’d choose freestyle first – then examine which variations within that stroke style are connected to the most or the least amount of low back problems (we should do this for shoulder problems as well). We could not say, “freestyle causes more back problems” because within the population of freestyle swimmers (of similar performance level), there would be people with back problems and people without them. We would want to know what features about those swimmers and their stroke placed them either in the problem category or in the problem-free category. Rather than simply conclude this stroke style is more dangerous or not than others, we’d learn what variations make it safer and which place the swimmer at higher risk for injury. Wouldn’t you like to know that? Don’t you think your coach should know that?

For a while, I have suspected one particular cause of low-back problems. Here’s my hypothesis as to why some swimmers experience low back pain…

Fluttering Feet, Divided Back

A flutter kick, whether 4-beat or 6-beat, requires the legs in back to flutter at a rhythm that is must faster than the rhythm of the torso turning in conjunction with the arms in front. The legs flutter several beats for each single rotation of the torso. The fluttering legs have a bend at the knee and a bend at the hip, which then requires the pelvis to rotate in rhythm with the legs rather than with the torso. This requires the pelvis and lowest spine to go with the legs and the upper spine to go with the arms. This requires the spine to separate the two movements somewhere in the lower spine – which is probably right there at the waist, just above the pelvis. Now, zooming in to that spot between two vertebrae, rotate that lower vertebrae back and forth at a fast rate, while the vertebrae above it rotates at a slower rate, which means they are traveling in the opposite direction from each other much of the time. Imagine the shear stress occurring between those two vertebrae. Add a tilted pelvis from weak or improper core activation and you add more stress to that region of the spine. Add a kick board which curves the swimmer’s spine upward, creating more strain in the lumber region. Imagine hours of kicking sets and swimming sets with vertebrae in the lower back shearing against each other. Then we wonder why some swimmers with flutter kicks – elite or not – develop low back problems?


Unified Feet, Unified Back

Here is what I do with those I work with in freestyle…

First set up the swimmer with an aligned, unified and stable spine. 

We will keep the head in neutral position with the spine, eyes looking straight down.  

We recognize that the thighs are tied into the pelvis. Whatever the legs to, the pelvis must support. The legs should be lined up behind the torso as if standing on ‘Tippy Toes’ with adequate flexibility in the front of the hip and adequate strength on the back side to hold them there in a weightless horizontal position (able to prevent them from tilting downward into fetal position).

The pelvis is leveled and tied into the torso as a single rotational unit. 

Then we’ll teach the swimmer to use a 2-Beat Kick which will allow the pelvis to stay connected to the torso, rotating as one unit on each stroke. (Considering how Sun Yang can maintain a 58 second 100m pace for 1400 meters using a 2-Beat Kick, I really don’t see an argument any more for the necessity of a flutter kick for swimming as fast as 99% of the athletes and fitness folk in the pool are ever going to swim).

If these features are in place, then that lower back has a lot better chance at staying free of irritation and injury because the entire spine now is unified and stable in its neutral alignment, with little or no shear or rotational stress in any particular section. 


A Specific Kind Of Core Strength

Obviously, the swimmer has to develop a specific kind of core control and strength to be able to hold the spine in neutral for hours of training, and keep the pelvis firmly connected to the torso, and keep the pelvis leveled. Certain modalities and exercises would help the swimmer do this, while countless others would be of little benefit for this particular situation. But just swimming itself, while keeping attention on certain focal points for form, especially under more challenging conditions, will build the specific kind of strength you need.

I’ve told the story before of a student I had in Moscow a few years ago. In her younger years she was a high level competitive swimmer, and continued to swim as an adult. Since she was a girl she has had pain in her lower back from swimming that coaches told her to ignore, but in these later years it was limiting her swimming and her enjoyment. Within a few hours, after learning to keep her head in neutral position, aligning the spine behind it, and once she quickly picked up the 2-Beat Kick (which doesn’t always come so quickly) her lower back pain was gone for the first time in years. She came out of the water beaming in relief.

If you’ve been hurting in your lower back it’s something worth considering!


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