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Warm-Up for the Spine - Three Easy Methods to Warm-Up the Spine for Activity

By John Paul Catanzaro

It is estimated that up to 80% of the population has experienced or will experience at least one bout of low back pain in their life.(7) So, it would be wise to warm-up the spine thoroughly prior to physical activity, but how? In this article, I will share with you 3 simple methods that you can use with your clients to prepare their spines for exercise.

Foam Roll

In the book, The Development of Muscular Bulk & Power, Anthony Ditillo recommends simply laying on a flat bench with your arms behind your head and eyes closed for 15 minutes prior to a workout. During this time, he advises utilizing visualization of the upcoming workout to encourage a positive state and enhance performance.(3) By the way, this book was originally published in 1971 and much of the information still holds true today - it is an excellent read! Charles Poliquin, a highly successful strength coach, takes this a step further by having his athletes lay on a 6-inch foam roll also for 15 minutes before their workout to help decompress the spine by opening up the intervertebral spaces. Apparently, laying on the foam roll - referred to as a spine roller by physiotherapists - lengthwise along the spine will help restore normal spinal curvatures since gravity acts downwards, straightening the spine at the apex of excessive curvatures (generally reducing kyphosis.)(4) Since this method allows for optimal nerve conduction, Poliquin claims that it will increase strength by up to 3%.(6)

I have found that a greater effect is achieved if the base of the skull (i.e. suboccipital area) is placed at the edge of the roll causing slight cervical extension. This seems to pull the spine allowing a greater decompressive effect. Try it both ways and see if you can feel the difference.

For small individuals, use a child's swim noodle - you know, the one they float on when swimming - which can be purchased for a few dollars at any Wal-Mart store. Larger individuals should invest in a 6- inch foam roll; you can purchase one from Fitter International (visit or call 1-800-FITTER1).

Camel/Cat Exercise

The camel and "mad cat are 2 classic exercises which stretch the abdominals and back respectively and are prescribed in many rehabilitation programs. Dr. Stuart McGill, a spinal biomechanist and professor at the University of Waterloo, recommends this series of exercises to "floss the nervous system and reduce viscosity. Perform 5- 6 cycles and do not press the end range (make sure to involve the cervical spine.) McGIll stresses that this method is not a stretch, but rather gentle motion. By getting nerves to move, they can create their own space; it's not enough to just stretch them! Also, it is a good idea to avoid these exercises first thing in the morning. Wait at least one hour after awakening. That is the critical period since your tissue is superhydrated at that point resulting in an 18% loss of strength in the spine and risk of injury is heightened!(5)

Pelvic Rocks on a Swiss ball

Pelvic rocks are actually an extension of the camel/cat exercise described above; however, they are not limited to just one plane of movement. Rehabilitation specialist, Paul Chek, recommends this series of exercises as a method to pump fresh fluid through the spinal discs to nourish the tissues.(1) Pelvic rocks involve forward & backward, side-to- side, and circular movements on the Swiss ball.(2) The goal with this (and any other active warm-up for that matter) is to gradually increase speed and range of motion. Basically, cue "further and "faster to your clients as they progress. If practiced enough, they may even improve their dancing skills!

There you have it - three easy methods to warm-up the spine for activity. Keep in mind that I have not touched upon any stretches (visit for an in-depth discussion on stretching). However, if you are currently experiencing some form of low back pain, then you should practice all these exercises on a regular basis. For preventative measures and to possibly increase strength, perform at least one of the methods before your workout. Really, how hard is it to lay on a foam roll for a few minutes? Your spine will thank you.

Note: John Paul has a DVD available with demonstrations of all the warm-up techniques and drills mentioned in this article. Visit for more info.


1. Chek, P. Bigger Balls, Better Backs. New Zealand Fitness, Issue #22.

2. Chek, P. Swiss Ball Training. Paul Chek Seminars. La Jolla, CA.1996. (pages 15-16)

3. Ditillo, A. The Development of Muscular Bulk & Power. Ironman Magazine, 1971. Reprinted in 1999 by Wm F. Hinbern, Farmington, MI. (page 23)

4. Luoma, TC. TC Talks. Muscle Media 2000. Golden, CO. Dec., 1996, No. 55.

5. McGill, S. Low Back Injury: Improving Prevention Strategies and Rehabilitation Approaches Seminar. Toronto, ON. May 12, 2001.

6. Poliquin, C. Preparing for the Ultimate Workout. Testosterone, Issue #81. Dec. 3, 1999.

7. Shiple, BJ. Treating Low-Back Pain: Exercise Knowns and Unknowns. The Physician and Sportsmedicine. 25(8), Aug. 1997.

About The Author
John Paul Catanzaro, B.Sc., C.K., P.F.L.C., is a certified kinesiologist and professional fitness and lifestyle consultant with a specialized honors Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and Health Science. He owns and operates a private gym in Toronto, Ontario, providing training and nutritional consulting services. For additional information, visit his website at or call 416-292-4356.

Copyright © 2006, John Paul Catanzaro. All rights reserved.


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