This might just be one of the quickest ways to get a bunch of traditional karate people all bothered and offended- but- here goes:

Lower back pain is an issue that affects a large percentage of the US adult population. Although I don’t have any numbers at my fingertips, I’d be willing to bet that lower back pain affects karate practitioners more than the average population. Particularly those who place an inflated value on very long and deep stances. The rationale usually goes that holding a longer and deeper stance increases leg strength and mobility, so all students should start out as low and deep as possible.

A more effective approach to lower body strength and power development for martial artists is simple: squats. The other retort to the “longer and deeper” fixation is that holding fixed positions increases isometric stabilization within that posture- but does not increase dynamic strength or speed throughout the range of motion. Standing in a low, deep stance makes you good at, well, standing in a low, deep stance. True-believers of this method will often point out that Sensei so-and-so adopted a higher stance in his older years because he “had mastered the long stance” and could now do it his own way. It’s much more likely that these individuals  simply cannot move the way that they used to before a lifetime of encouraging poor movement patterns took it’s toll on their bodies (see below). The higher stance is a reflection of acquiescence to  deeply ingrained movement compensations  (although a higher, more natural stance makes more sense from a training perspective anyhow).

Standing in a very long stance places the lower back into lumbar hyper-extension, or exaggerated lordosis. The longer you go, the harder it is to use the abdominal stabilizers and gluteal muscles to do part of their job- stabilizing the torso in an upright position. Over-activation of the  hip flexors and tensor fasciae latae in an attempt to stabilize the torso inhibits the activation of these core muscles, leading to eventual prominence of the lower gut, weak core stabilizer muscles, reduced hip mobility, lower back pain and the likelihood of a ruptured disc in the lumbar spine.The illustration below demonstrates normal spinal curvature and exaggerated lumber lordosis:

Assume a very long stance and notice that the longer you stretch it, the harder it is to use the glutes to tuck the hips and maintain a neutral lumbar spinal curvature. The vertebrae at the bottom of the spine are now in the unfortunate position of having to absorb the impact and compression of lunging or thrusting motions. Lunging and thrusting motions should bring to mind the reverse punch, a staple of many karate practitioner’s practice. The more you thrust and absorb impact in this position, the more your lower spine has to absorb. Your lower spine is not meant to do this without the help of the abdominal stabilizers.

Sometime in the near future we’ll post a series of exercises that can help karate practiitoners, and martial artists in general, avoid the stress that training places on our lower backs. For now, visit the link below for a wealth of good information on the causes and corrections of lower back pain:

Fitness and Lower Back Pain, Len Kravitz, PhD (no, not that Lenny Kravitz)  and Ron Andrews, MS, PT

Update: Read Back Brief by our own Robert Miller, CPT and CES, for some ideas about how to prevent and fix lower back and hip problems associated with karate training.