Avoid Building On Top of Back Dysfunction

Today let’s talk about back dysfunction.

To talk on that topic, here is John Izzo.

Here at EFI, we have chatted about John before. I did a review of his Lunging to Improve Performance a few months back.

A few weeks back we were chatting about back dysfunction.  It was based on what I learned from watching his Shatterproof Spine program.

I asked if he could expand on things and share what he had said with EFI readers.

Take it away, John.

In this day and age of technology, sedentary lifestyles, and poor posture—all trainers have their hands full trying to enforce optimal exercise execution. And I don’t simply mean “not swinging the arms” during biceps curls or “not going low enough on barbell squats”. I am referring to very small deviations in optimal performance.

Common Rookie Trainer Mistakes

Starting with advanced exercises is the most popular and most unknowing mistake made by exercisers in gyms today. This mistake is committed because users choose complex exercises or heavy loads without working with progressions first. An even bigger mistake committed by personal trainers is not assessing clients at all before beginning an exercise program. How do people in the gym commit this mistake? They lack proper instruction, coaching, and body awareness. Most novice exercisers don’t know how to “feel” a muscle during certain movements or drills. Their bodies are loaded with muscle imbalances and compensations that further exacerbate dysfunction without them even knowing. Trainers miss these subtle hints because most trainers do not perform movement assessments or they simply don’t have the keen eye to spot everything during a movement. That keen eye is polished with a competency in basic anatomy and exercise biomechanics.

Body Movement versus Machine Movement

Most trainers and exercisers assess capability with the “first set” of a loaded exercise. I’m sure you’ve seen it or experienced the “Express-Line” at your local commercial fitness facility. Most new exercisers are placed on strength machines consisting anywhere from 6-12 exercises. Trainers are instructed to orient new exercisers on these machines without a movement screening or basic assessment. Once a client is placed on a machine, a load is placed and there you have it: the trainer “no longer” pays attention to the mechanics of the body. They only focus on the proper “usage of the machine”.

Importance of the Keen Trainer Eye

Other trainers that do not place their clients on machines but try to incorporate “core” or free weight exercises usually miss important points. Clients will perform a squat with a shoulder press using dumbbells –because the trainer has informed them that it is “a great multi-joint exercise that utilizes a lot of muscles and therefore, burns a lot of calories”. However, without a proper assessment or keen eye for cueing, once a load is introduced such as body weight or dumbbells, and the movement has not been properly coached or assessed, the dysfunction is engraved in the nervous system. Check out this poorly executed glute extension. This is a perfect example of building on top of dysfunction:

The video shows a constant pelvic rotation without any proper alignment of the spine. Sure, her buttocks area is getting a great workout, but at the expense of the constant rotation at the lumbar spine. Recent research from Dr. Stuart McGill shows that rotating at the lumbar spine is contradictory in low back health.

5 Stage Approach to Exercise Program Design

Witnessing many of these unfortunate instances in the gym, and listening to tales of poor training programs used by my clients in the past, I began studying much of Dr. Stuart McGill’s work. Dr. McGill is a world renowned low back researcher based in Canada and has done a tremendous job of covering the back in his book, “Low Back Disorders”. Upon reading this research and implementing many of the protocols, I began to implement a 5 stage approach to exercise program design.

This 5 stage progression looks like this:

  • Stage 1: Corrective Exercise
  • Stage 2: Stability
  • Stage 3: Endurance (training core with fatigue)
  • Stage 4: Strength
  • Stage 5: Power & Speed

These 5 stages are sometimes blended, modified, or executed in different order depending on the client’s fitness level and qualitative data I get from the movement screening and the initial assessment.

Furthermore,  the time it takes the client to progress from stage to stage depends a lot on frequency, exercise adherence, and present fitness level. My job is not to keep them in a “corrective state” if their goal is to lose body fat. More than likely, when excess body fat loss has occurred, most corrective measures tend to clean up themselves–helping me to concentrate on the next stage or combining modalities. Sounds meticulous? It’s really not. The end goal is to optimize movement AS BEST AS POSSIBLE. It may never be textbook, but it is important to improve the movement in the capacity for which it is contained. Here is an example of the quadruped glute bridge featured earlier in this post with better coaching and body awareness.

Some “fussy-ness” or “exact-ness’ is important when observing a client exercise.

Does it mean that you should try to correct every little thing?

Absolutely not. If you employ that idea, you will never progress. Culmination is the name of the game and once a client or exerciser sees results, you have achieved a majority of your mission.

The work of Stuart McGill is explained in simplistic terms and practiced in this new workshop video, Shatterproof Spine. The help of assessments will aid trainers and exercisers alike to better understand how an exercise is affecting the movement pattern and muscles involved. With this type of feedback, dysfunction can be minimized and function should be optimized.

John Izzo is a prolific fitness blogger, amazing trainer and cool guy.


Thanks, John.

Great to have you here at EFI.  Thank you for sharing your knowledge, expertise and passion with us.

Rick Kaselj, MS