The Most Important Muscle You Have Never Heard Of

Posted: April 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

The nature of CrossFit is inherently competitive. It’s one of the reasons that people keep coming back; but it also tempts some to push more than they should. This may lead to overtraining, and in some cases, injury, or what I like to call “pre-injury.” Injuries are usually structural and prevent continuation of the activity, while “pre-injury” causes pain and immobility enough that the person definitely feels it the next day, but are able to return within a matter of days, instead of weeks or months.

The potential for injury is also greater within CrossFit because of the focus on “prescribed” workouts. Many CrossFitters’ pride forces them to perform workouts as prescribed before their individual strength and endurance progression would allow. CrossFit-style programming usually, but not in all cases, does not spend adequate time with stability training and/or proper form. Most CrossFit injuries and pre-injuries deal with the back, and the majority of those can be traced directly back to those two factors of stability and form.

Deep within the core musculature is a muscle called the Quadratus Lumborum, more commonly referred to as the QL. The QL connects the anterior crest of the ilium to the medial (closest to the spine) half of the bottom rib and the transverse processes of upper four lumbar vertebrae. While relatively small, the QL is by no means insignificant. The Quadratus Lumborum is directly linked, and in many cases, responsible for nearly all cases of low back pain.

The QL primarily works ipsilaterally for flexion of the spine (side to side bending), and QL is considered the primary stabilizer in the frontal plane, but more importantly for our discussion as it relates to CrossFit, the QL can work bilaterally to extend the spine, by picking of the slack of the Erector Spinae muscles if they are weak or inhibited.

There are a couple of scenarios in which the QL may be responsible for low-back injuries in CrossFit. The first is if the QL itself is under developed, and the second is the need for the QL to overcompensate for weak or inhibited Erector Spinae and/or Multifidus muscles. Many times it’s a combination of both.

There are not many, in fact I can’t think of any on the top of my head, CrossFit exercises or skill that involve lateral flexion of the spine which is the QL’s primary movment, but there is no shortage of CrossFit exercises that require solid frontal plane stability. Frontal plane stability is characterized by being able to maintain body balance without losing balance forward or backward. Any exercise where a load is raised above the head requires frontal plane stability. The longer the weight is held above the head, and degree of movement progressively increases the need for balance. For example, one may be able to push 95 pounds above the head for a “thruster” easily in comparison to a “snatch.” The “snatch” may be easy in comparison to the “overhead squat.” The QL is primarily responsible for the ability to retain stability throughout the movement. If the QL is weak or underdeveloped, if the load is increased, the pelvis rotates forward putting added stress on the lower back causing pain and/or mechanical injury.

In the case where the other muscles of the lower back and hips are weak or otherwise inhibited, the QL must act synergistically for movement. If the QL uses its limited energy to assist in this way, it will fatigue quickly and will  lose its ability to stabilize the body in the frontal plane.

To decrease the chance of low-back pain and/or injury, every CrossFitter should work progressively to increase the strength and flexibililty of the Erector Spinae, Multifidus, and Quadratus Lumborum. In addition, QL exercises should be incorporated into every dynamic warmup for any workout that requires frontal plane stability. Doing this will essentially “wake up” the muscle if it is/has been inhibited though inactivity. My favorite three exercises to increase QL strength and stability are: 1) side plank with hip raise; 2) side bends with kettlebells, dumbbells, or bands; 3) hanging side to side swings.

If we consciously program to strengthen our stabilizers, specifically the QL, and not let our pride put so much emphasis on “rx” then we will significantly decrease the risk of low-back pain and injury, and we can continue to feed our CrossFit addiction

  1. […] The Most Important Muscle You Have Never Heard Of by CrossFit Biomechanics […]

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