The Sway Back Equation
I know what you’re thinking: This is either the title of an archived Robert Ludlum novel or the name of an old-school hip-hop album.
Both are wrong – but wouldn’t it be awesome if either of the two were true?
As someone who’s read every Ludlum novel, I’d kill to have access to another one of his masterpieces. While there are a few authors today who write really good espionage fiction, in my opinion Ludlum is the Godfather and everyone else is just Fredo Corleone.
And as far as hip-hop is concerned, lets be honest: today’s hip-hop pales in comparison to what I grew up with in the late 80s through the 90s. I distinctly remember the first time I listened to Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers and thinking to myself, “Holy fuck balls. This is amazing.”
Likewise, I can’t even begin to tell you how many times – much to my mom’s chagrin – I listened to A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. Since that was a more PG-rated album, I literally played it everywhere.
I blared it in my bedroom, outside while playing wiffleball, and even, sometimes, when she allowed it, in the family caravan.
Momma Gentilcore used to head bop to a little Scenario back in the day!
Here we go, yo! Here we go, yo! So what so what so what’s the scenario.
I literally wore that tape out playing it so much.
But alas, like I said, neither of the above is the topic at hand in today’s post. Instead what I want to dive into is a little discussion on posture.
More specifically swayback posture.
But we’ll need to give a little anatomy lesson first
When looking at one’s posture, the first thing I typically look at is their pelvic positioning. The pelvis will tell you a lot as far as what’s going on up and down the kinetic chain. In a way, much of the postural imbalances, dysfunctions, and asymmetries that we see on a daily basis have their impetus at the pelvis.
Keeping things (very) watered down and simple, you generally have three presentations:
1. Those who are in some semblance of (excessive) anterior pelvic tilt: typically indicative of stiff/short hip flexors, weak anterior core musculature, short/stiff erector spinae, and weak/inhibited glutes and hamstrings.
You’ll see this present quite often in the athletic population:
2. By contrast, another common presentation are those people who are in (excessive) posterior pelvic tilt, which is typically indicative of the polar opposite of the above: hip flexors are lengthened, anterior core musculature is shortened (due to sitting in flexion too much), erector spinae are lengthened, and the hamstrings are short/stiff.
All told the lumbar spine tends to be flattened, which can lead to an increased incidence of disc herniations.
Not surprisingly this is most common those who sit in front of a computer for large portions of the day.
Again these are just gross generalizations and I understand that more can make it’s way onto the canvas when looking at compensation patterns (and their root causes).
With all this information in our back pocket, we can then set out to write an appropriate training program that will address the underlying issues.
Speaking in generalities it may look something like this:
For those in anterior pelvic tilt: we want to emphasize protocols which will encourage a bit more posterior pelvic tilt and help get the pelvis back to a more neutral position.
1. Lots of glute activation drills and strengthening. While your garden variety glute bridges are fantastic option, one variation I really like is the Posterior Pelvic Hip Thrust highlighted here by Bret Contreras:
2. Emphasizing more posterior chain work – deadlifts, pull-throughs, GHRs, squats, etc (but making sure to cue a brace rather than an excessive arch).
Cueing is key here. Tossing in deadlifts (RDLs) and squats and then cueing someone to arch (and thus falling into more APT) defeats the purpose and just feeds into the overriding problem.
It’s important to teach someone to brace – and maintain as much of a “neutral” spine as possible – rather than arch. Mike Robertson does an awesome job of being Mike Robertson (dropping knowledge bombs left and right) and explaining the rationale HERE.
3. Dedicated (long-duration) stretching for the hip flexors. 30s second stretches aren’t going to cut it here, as all that does is increase one’s tolerance to a stretch and does nothing to increase the number of sarcomeres (which is what’s needed to lengthen a muscle).
Maybe some dedicated stretching for the erectors – although I’m not a massive fan of this.
DO NOT stretch the hamstrings.
Think about why: if someone is walking around in APT all day long, the hamstrings are already lengthened, and the only reason why they “feel tight” is because they’re firing like crazy. Stretching them will only make matters worse.
Of course, this needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis as some will inevitably have “tight” hamstrings. But most of the time is a pelvic issue, not a hamstring issue.
4. Placing a premium on addressing tissue quality – especially in the hip flexors, external rotators, etc.
5. Lots and lots and lots of anterior core work (but not crunches or sit-ups. At this point, I don’t feel I need to go out of my way to explain why).
For those in posterior pelvic tilt: we want to emphasize protocols which will encourage a bit more anterior pelvic tilt and help get the pelvis back to a more neutral position.
In short, those in PPT need to strengthen the hell out of APT.
1. Honestly I’m still going to hammer posterior chain work here (glutes and hamstrings) because most people are woefully weak there anyways.
I want all of my male clients to be able to deadlift a mack truck (female clients too, for that matter), and I want all my female clients to actually have a pair of glutes that they can be proud of and rock their “sexy” jeans (and, if that’s your bag, you too fellas. I don’t judge).
Much of the difference is how I go about coaching and cueing everything, as I’ll need to make sure that they don’t compensate and excessively posterior tilt when deadlifting or squatting – especially when going into hip extension.
2. I won’t include much (if any) dedicated anterior core work here as the rectus abdominus (which aids in posterior tilt) is short and stiff already.
Instead, I’ll focus mainly on STABILITY based exercises and emphasize length (staying tall) on things like Pallof Presses, chops/lifts etc.
In addition we’ll also probably rock out with some planks.
Watch most people do a plank and they’ll inevitably curl up/round their back which just plays into the dysfunctional pattern. Instead, try to coach/cue your spine to get as long as possible – without exhibiting a forward head posture and allowing the lumbar spine to “dip.”
Ideally it will look something like this:
Along those same lines we can consider the RKC Plank, which is a bastard in of itself. Again, stealing from Bret, here’s the nuts and bolts:
3. As far as any dedicated stretching is concerned, I’ll hammer the hamstrings, but in all likelihood will defer to more multi-planar mobilizations, or what’s also referred to as 3D stretching.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg on both fronts, but hopefully helps people understand the big picture.
The red headed step-child of posture: the sway back
Sway back is rarely discussed in fitness circles probably because it’s seemingly so rare. But it IS becoming more prominent and it’s something that was brought to light while watching Mike Robertson’s Bulletproof Back and Knee Seminar recently.
FYI: It’s a fantastic resource, and I’d highly recommend it to any fitness professional reading.
As noted by Mike, sway back is simply a posterior pelvic tilt albeit with the hips pushed forward.
While a bit rarer in the general population, one demographic where it’s becoming more and more prevalent is….drum roll please……
Boy Bands? Not quite.
Bomb sniffing dolphins? Nice try, but no.
In actuality, it’s PERSONAL trainers and coaches.
As a coach and trainer myself I can commiserate. I spend roughly 6-8 hours of my day standing – in extension – coaching people. And while I don’t rock a sway back posture I do possess some APT sumthin fierce.
To their credit many have recognized that APT is an issue, and have done a remarkable job at trying to alleviate it.
To that end, many have been placing a premium on cleaning up glute and hamstring issues by strengthening them, only to disregard and neglect the other crucial component of the equation…….
Tossing a little more anatomy into the fire, the external obliques have a few important functions:
1. Trunk flexion (bilateral).
2. Trunk rotation (unilateral, alongside opposite internal oblique).
3. Posterior pelvic tilt without a pull on the rib cage! Meaning, unlike the rectus abdominus – with prominent attachment points on the rib cage – the external obliques also posteriorly tilt the pelvis sans all the postural ramifications.
So, for those in a sway back, placing more of an emphasis on the external obliques can be of great benefit. You still have to be somewhat careful here, though, because you don’t want to promote too much PPT.
My first choice would be reverse crunches, but you may need to use these on a case-by-case basis depending on how much PPT someone is in:
Not far behind would be Offset Farmer Carries.
I love offset (1-Arm) farmer carries because they absolutely destroy the obliques as you have to fight to stay as upright as possible throughout the duration of the set.
The first progression would be your standard suitcase carry where you hold a DB or KB at your side:
There should be NO compensating in any form. No tilting, rotating, leaning, NOTHING.
From there, I’d progress to RACKED carries:
And then the grand daddy of them all would be overhead or WAITER carries:
I should also add that with all these variations the goal is to keep the rib cage locked down and to wear the coolest t-shirt ever (like the one in the videos).
Tall kneeling Variations
I’ll also add tall kneeling variations onto this list too. Whether we’re referring to chops, lifts, Pallof Presses, or the plethora of landmine exercises out there, these are all excellent ways to target the external obliques and to help alleviate the sway back posture.
And That’s That
WHEW my brain hurts – I said a lot there. Hopefully within all my rambling I made some sense and was able to shed some light on some simple (albeit not all encompassing) ways to fix/address the sway back posture.
If not, my bad…..;o)