How Serious Is Your Spine Compression During OHP?
March 24th 2020
As you may have heard time and time again, performing lifts with proper form is crucial for safety and longevity in weightlifting.
You want to ensure that your form is on point each time you perform a lift.
However, there comes a point where you might be overly cautious when performing exercises.
You may have heard that it’s bad to compress your spine, and that you should avoid all exercises that do so.
However, as you’ll see why later, this is a myth and spinal compression is perfectly safe, as long as you maintain neutral alignment throughout.
This is even true in the case of the overhead press.
So, if you are worried about spinal compression during the overhead press, you can rest easy knowing that the spinal compression will not result in negative long-term harm, as long as the rest of your form is on point.
The first step to understanding what happens during the overhead press while the spine is compressed is by first understanding the anatomy.
Your spine, also known as the vertebral column, is composed of your vertebrae, and a structure known as the intervertebral disc that is located between vertebrae.
The vertebrae are the bony structures located within the vertebral column that house and protect your spinal cord and central nervous system.
The intervertebral discs located between the vertebrae are soft, compressible, and are what absorb and transfer weight during the spine, such as during the overhead press.
By understanding this, you first realize that when your spine is compressed during the overhead press, it is not the bony vertebrae that are compressing against each other, but the intervertebral disc between them.
The intervertebral disc can withstand a lot of compressions, but they can be displaced when the force is oriented in a direction that is not straight up and down.
The vertebrae and intervertebral discs are perfectly aligned and stacked on top of each other.
However, when there is compression of the spine while the vertebrae and intervertebral discs are not aligned, it can cause an injury known as a disc herniation.
When your spine is compressed while it is bent forward (known as kyphosis), the portions at the front of the vertebrae are pressed against each other.
This causes the substance within the intervertebral disc to push backward.
When this happens repeatedly, or with a greater compressive force, the disc will permanently deviate backward, putting pressure on the nerves (nerve impingement) causing severe pain and discomfort.
A herniated disc might make it painful to perform simple movements such as bending over, walking, and even lifting weights.
Disc herniations may require surgery if severe or may take a long time to heal on its own if taking the nonsurgical approach.
This is why it is vital to perform the lifts with proper form and with a neutral spine.
If your spine is not in neutral alignment, it may cause a disc herniation leading to long term pain and complications down the road.
With that being said, is spinal compression during the overhead press safe?
Is it okay to have spinal compression during the overhead press?
Yes, it is okay to have spinal compression during the overhead press. In fact, spinal compression is normal.
The moment you wake up and get out of bed, your spine already compresses due to the force of gravity.
If you don’t feel pain while getting out of bed and walking around, you shouldn’t feel pain while performing the overhead press.
The only thing you have to make sure is that your spine is in neutral alignment while you are performing the overhead press.
This means having proper form and making sure you aren’t bent too far forward or too far backward while performing the exercise.
So if you are feeling back pain while performing the overhead press, what might be the cause of it?
Causes of back pain during the overhead press
To start off, if you are experiencing severe pain that lasts for more than a few days, that does not get better or worse with time, or if you are feeling numbness or tingling sensations in your hands or feet, consult with a medical practitioner.
Although we discussed the anatomy of the spine and the issue that may occur with spinal compression, it does not mean that if you have pain in the back, that it is due to a disc herniation.
In fact, disc herniations are rarely seen in lifters performing the overhead press.
Unless if your form is so bad that you are hunched forward while trying to perform the lift, you most likely will not develop a disc herniation with the overhead press.
This is because of the anatomical design of the spine, posterior deviations of the intervertebral discs are much more common than anterior deviations.
And posterior deviations only occur when your spine is in flexion or bent forward.
This is why disc herniations are more commonly seen with lifters who perform the deadlift with a flexed back.
If you are performing the overhead press even with slight proper form, you will not be in a bent forward position.
With that being said, what might be the cause of your back pain during the overhead press?
If you are experiencing back pain while performing the overhead press, chance are, you are overarching your back too much.
So instead of flexing too far forward, you are extending too far back.
This compresses the spinous processes and the other bony structures in the area.
Although this might result in some pain and discomfort, it most likely won’t lead to long-term complications and can be treated with rest.
When performing the overhead press, double-check your form to see if you are overextending your back.
If that is the case, you want to work on your form so that you maintain a neutral spine while performing the overhead press.
You want to maintain a neutral spine in your neck, upper back, and lower back throughout the entire lift.
I find that those who experience pain during the overhead press, they are overextending their spine either at their upper back or lower back.
Another potential cause of your back pain could be due to generalized weakness of the lower back.
If you just started the lifting program and are just starting to perform the overhead press, your body might not be used to keeping your spine in a neutral position while trying to lift the bar overhead.
When you are starting a new program or new exercise, you will usually feel a type of soreness known as DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness.
This muscle soreness can be easily misinterpreted as pain or tightness, especially if you are not used to exercising.
If you think you are experiencing DOMS, you should know that it will go away on its own with rest.
In fact, once you start getting stronger, you will be less likely to develop DOMS as you work out.
So, make sure that you are not overarching your spine too far backwards or too far forwards. This should decrease the pain you feel during the overhead press, and prevent further complications in the future.
Fear unhealthy movement, not exercise itself
Moving is normal.
Strength training is normal if you have the goal to get stronger.
With that said, you are accumulating stress to withstand heavier weights and to create more neural connections to your muscles.
One of the side-effects of heavy lifting is that your spine will be compressed (healthy by the way).
What is not right is when exercise is done incorrectly or you lack the mobility/strength to perform such exercises.
This can result in discomfort, pain and injury.
So, let us change that.
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In order to build strength correctly, you should learn and experience the fundamentals first.
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I am running 5/3/1 Forever and you should too.
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