One of the roles played by the spinal column is to form a strong, stabilising base for most athletic movements, but the spinal column itself is subject to some instability among athletes. In fact, one of the most serious problems faced by individuals who want to continue to compete as veteran athletes is a gradual loss of spinal-bone density, which can eventually lead to a debilitating fracture of the spine. It’s important to note that some forms of exercise actually seem to exacerbate this worrisome process. For example, research carried out at the University of Maryland in the United States found that endurance runners who trained about 50 miles per week had 10% thinner spines than non-athletes; another study completed at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario discovered that runners logging just 40 miles per week had less-sturdy spines, compared with sofa sloths (“Show a Little Backbone!” Running Research News, Vol. 11 (1), p. 1, 4-6, 1995). Both of these studies were carried out with male subjects, shattering the idea that non-menstruating female athletes are the only ones with spine frailty.
It is not certain why running seems to prune the spine, although a good guess is that strenuous running programmes can sometimes lessen the activity of the gonads, leading to lower levels of circulating sex hormone in the blood. That’s usually bad for the spinal bones, since both testosterone, the male sex hormone, and oestrogen, the female counterpart, are potent bone-builders. If gonadal curtailment is at the bottom of some of the athletic bone-loss problems, this explains why some sports that are “more balanced” than running have also been linked with spinal woes. For example, research conducted at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London revealed that triathletes, whose workouts were a blend of running, swimming, and cycling, had no better spinal (and total-body) bone densities than exercise-free people; in fact, their skeletal thicknesses were sometimes lower-than-average. Why does triathlon participation chip away at the spine? The answer may be related to the downfall of the gonads in serious endurance athletes, but another key is probably that two of triathloning’s two components – cycling and swimming – are both relatively non-weight-bearing activities, with the body being supported by either the bike or the water, not by bones and muscles. It is strongly believed that weight-bearing activities put greater stress on the skeleton and lead to superior bone-building (running being the exception to this rule).
“An experienced tennis player almost always has thicker bones in the arm used for hitting the ball than in the one used for sipping tea”
Of course, the issue of weight-bearing versus non-weight-bearing exercise leads to the question of what bones like the spinal vertebrae actually “need” in order to decide to “bulk up”. Strangely enough, scientists are still a bit unsure about what encourages bones to thicken, but it appears that skeletal structures respond either to large forces placed on them by muscles and tendons or to compression forces created during activity. An example of the latter would be the accordion-like squeezing of the spinal vertebrae which occurs when you jump on to the ground from a high step. A case of the former would be the intense muscular forces placed on the dominant arm while serving and hitting a tennis ball with great power (an experienced tennis player almost always has thicker bones in the arm he/she uses for hitting the ball, compared to the one used for sipping tea).
That being true, it’s not surprising that scientists at the Tampere Research Station of Sports Medicine in Tampere, Finland recently found that two important sports – squash and weight lifting – can have very positive effects on bone fabrication. 164 competitive female athletes from seven different sports took part in the Finnish study, including 30 orienteers, 29 cyclists, 18 weightlifters, 28 cross-country skiers, 27 aerobic dancers, 18 squash players, and 14 speed skaters. The average age of the athletes was 24 years, and average weight was 134 pounds. As mentioned, the big winners in the bone-density race were the squash players and weightlifters. Compared with the bones of non-active control individuals, the bone-mineral densities of the squash-players’ spines were 14% higher. In addition, the squash-players’ leg bones were 13 to 17% thicker, and bones in their feet were about 19% more solid! Do individuals with already heavy bones naturally gravitate toward squash, for unknown reasons, or does playing squash add a bit of bulk to bony tissues? The latter case is more likely – squash participation usually does not entail the high-volume training associated with running and triathlon preparations and therefore does not diminish gonadal activity. In addition, the “planting” action involved in preparing to hit a hot smash puts heavy stress on the legs and may encourage bony accretions in the legs and feet.
In the Finnish study, the weightlifters also did extremely well. For example, their legs were 17% thicker, their knee caps were 18% more solid, and their arms had 20% more substance, compared with non-exercising people. As in the St. Mary’s study, cycling had little positive impact on bone-building; the cyclists’ skeletal parts were no stronger than those of ordinary, unfit chaps off the street. Thus, it’s reasonable to conclude that if you are cycling as a veteran athlete, you are not doing it because of your bones. You are doing it for your heart and muscles – and perhaps because of your psychological urge to beat the tar out of your age-group competitors. As we have indicated, the sudden stops and “plants” involved in squash place heavy forces on the leg and feet bones, leading to their eventual increase in solidity. Likewise, weightlifting can heavily stress both the legs and arms, providing perhaps a broader-based bone-building effect. Gymnastics also seems to be great for bone-building – as long as female gymnasts can avoid amenorrhea. Graduate research carried out by David Nichols at Texas Women’s University recently revealed that eumenorrheic collegiate gymnasts had higher spinal bone densities, compared to control individuals and also deposited extra bone in their vertebrae over the course of a 27-week gymnastics training programme. Somewhat surprisingly, there is also some evidence that rowing may be good for bone-building. For example, the St Mary’s study cited previously found that rowers had very high bone densities throughout their bodies, compared with either triathletes or sedentary slugs. However, the St Mary’s rowers did carry out some supplemental weight training, so it is possible that the latter activity was primarily responsible for the increase in bone heft.
“Weight training is probably the ultimate form of exercise for building bone density”
If you are a runner or a triathlete, should you add squash, gymnastics, or rowing to your overall schedule in hopes of preserving your spine? There’s no need for that, according to highly respected exercise-and-bone researcher Gail Dalsky, PhD, of the University of Connecticut. Dalsky says, “Weight training is probably the ultimate form of exercise for building bone density.” That is certainly good to know, because appropriate resistance training can usually enhance sports performance, in addition to augmenting bone mass.
Unfortunately, however, the link between weightlifting and spinal growth is not automatic. For example, scientists at San Diego State University recently put a group of active women through a vigorous three-day per week, 12-month strength-training programme which included bench presses, lat pull-downs, shoulder presses, leg extensions, leg flexions, and also back extensions and flexions (to encourage spinal bone-building). During this San-Diego-State study, muscle strength increased by up to 71%, lean body mass expanded, and body fat percentage declined, but there was no improvement at all in spinal bone density. The problem? As the researchers admitted, the spine was not adequately “loaded” during the weight-training programme. It’s clear that strains (forces) of fairly high magnitude are required to really wake up ossified body parts and make them hasten to create new bony tissue. Unfortunately, the back extensions and flexions utilised in the San Diego State investigation were carried out with Polaris Weight Machines. In other words, the subjects were seated as they exercised, with body weight supported by the machines. In addition, the forces placed on the back were only moderate, and use of the machines created little bone-stimulating compression of the vertebrae. It is highly likely that something other than weight-machine work is needed to really give the spine a boost.
If traditional strength-training moves on machines don’t work to enhance your spine, what should you do? “You need variety,” says Dr Wendy Kohrt, a noted bone researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “If you are doing the same form and amount of exercise all the time, your skeleton has probably already adapted to your exertions and won’t add on any additional bone. You need to do something new.”
“It’s best to try to put a fair amount of force – and some compression – on your bones,” says David Nichols, main investigator in the gymnastics study described above. But – how do you actually do that while simultaneously including some new and different exercises in your training programme?
To make such matters easy for SIB readers, we describe below the proper way to carry out three bone-building exercises which put both compression and force on the spine (the drop jump, rowing with tubing, and the push press). We also include two important lists: (1) The 10 best exercises for the spine, and (2) 10 popular activities which probably don’t have much impact on spinal density.
The first exercise – drop jumps – could not be any easier to complete. Simply drop from a bench or high step (start with about a four- to six-inch height and work up), land on both feet with knees bent, and then explode upward into the air. The impact of landing and the upward acceleration both place compression and force on your spine, knocking in more calcium with almost every workout. As a progression, you may eventually carry out this exercise on one leg at a time (that is, land on only one foot after you have dropped off the bench or step, and explode off this single foot; naturally, you will want to exercise both legs during your workout). Begin with eight reps, and gradually build up to three sets of 15 reps.
To carry out the second exercise – rowing with tubing – you’ll need to create your own home rowing machine, but don’t worry – it will only cost you a couple of quid. Simply buy some resistant tubing from an athletics-supply shop, anchor it around a sturdy support structure, and hold the two ends of the tubing, one in each hand, while seated on a small bench or step about four inches in height. To start the exercise, you should be facing the anchor point, with your upper body erect and your legs extended in front of you (your feet should be next to the anchor point to which the tubing is attached; your hands should be just past your knees toward your ankles, with the tubing somewhat slack). Then, lean backwards so that your back makes about a 45-degree angle with the floor (or surface of the bench; in effect, your upper body should make a 135-degree angle with your thighs). After you have leaned back with your upper body, quickly pull the tubing toward your waist, and then quickly – but with good control – pull the tubing handles up toward your shoulders. Return to the starting position by reversing the action sequence described above. Complete 10 reps for your first stab at this exercise, and gradually move up to three sets of 15 reps. You will strengthen your arms, shoulders, and back as you attack this exercise faithfully, and you will definitely place some excellent compression on your backbone. Over time, try to use stiffer and stiffer tubing in order to provide increased resistance and compression.
The third exercise – the push press – is actually a lot of fun to do. You will need a barbell to perform the exercise, and you should start with a comfortable weight (for some individuals, this will mean beginning with the bar only, without attached weight). To carry out the exercise, begin with a relaxed stance, with your feet directly under your shoulders, your knees slightly flexed, and the bar held just in front of your shoulders, with your palms facing forward. Flex your legs at the knees to go into a semi-crouch, and then rise up into a straight-up, erect posture while pushing the barbell directly overhead, straightening your arms in the process. The overhead weight, the semi-crouching position, and the acceleration upward all place compression and force on the spine. Start with two sets of eight reps, gradually build up to three sets of 12 reps, and use heavier barbell weights as you become stronger.
It may take nine months