The Jefferson Curl – The essential movement for a healthy spine
I consider the Jefferson Curl the quintessential component of my life and my cross training. It is as important to spine as breathing is to my existence. I aim to do Jefferson Curl’s everyday (even if it’s just one set of 10 reps). Recently, gymnastic strength training (GST) has exploded in popularity because of its profound positive effects on overall body strength and mobility. And that’s not just because it looks awesome but because it works (caveat to GST workng for you: if proper form is performed and you are patient with your body, GST works to prevent injury and grow strength incrementally over your lifetime). Gains in GST are measured in years not weeks! What I mean by overdo it: do not rush and give your body the time it needs to adapt to new movements and stresses.
There is no better combination of mobility and strength work as in gymnastic strength training. The body thrives when you give equal, balanced attention to all its mobility and strength components. Musle imbalances in today’s society are compounded by stress, fatigue and insufficient movement and lack of variety of movement. Gymnastic inspired strength training is the perfect complement to being alive and the Jefferson Curl is a good place to start.
This movementhas the potential to have lifechanging effects on your spine and lower back. It will help you maintain a mobile healthy spine with strong supporting muscles and movable fascia.
Humans spend the large majority of their lives hunched over computers/phones/desks/remotes and other devices (much like I am now typing this blog post); or if you enjoy riding a bicycle as much as I do, hunched over handle bars! This can create a chronic condition of posterior chain weakness and chronic core disengagement. Over time this inevitably leads to lower back pain (and sometimes chronic neck problems). You should strive to the counteract the time spent in an unnatural forward bent position and strengthen your posterior chain with daily strengthening AND mobility routines.
A distinguishing feature of gymnastic strength training routines is that of weighted mobility. By utilizing incremental increases in weighted stretch positions, you will achieve superior mobility whilst also increasing your supportive body strength (you can hold your body up without getting tired and tight). One of the most beneficial techniques that uses the concept of weighted mobility is the Jefferson Curl. Jefferson Curls will strengthen your posterior chain whilst also increasing the mobility of your hamstrings and spine mobility. This is a sure way to cure back pain and keep it at bay for the long term. In addition, it is the perfect cross training exercise to counteract hours spent in a hunched forward position (this may be on a bicycle or hunched over a screen). It is also an essential complement to any training program, so it’s a ‘one size fits all’ kind of exercise.
Jefferson Curl Technique (A step-by-step guide)
The Jefferson Curl is a weighted strength AND mobility exercise. I do caution you to start slow and with very light weights (unweighted if you have had any previous lower back problems). You should begin the exercise for the first time with no weights at all so you body and nervous system can feel the movement before you start adding any weights. It is essential to keep your core (those lazy tummy mucles) and your gluts (equally lazy butt mucles) engaged throughout the exercise. Whole body awareness during any weighted mobility exercise is essential to good form and injury prevention.
Begin by finding an elevated surface that is stable and wide enough to accommodate your feet without your toes rolling off the front edge. I use a conventional gym step, but you can try a box or bench. For the weights you can get creative, but for best results I recommend barbells, kettlebells or a weighted bar. Start your movement by tucking your chin and looking into your chest. Imagine your spine is a string of pearls and you are slowly curling each vertebra, one at a time, as your head decends towards the ground.
The slower your move, the better. Take your time and focus on feeling your spine curl and suck in your belly as you move through each stage of the curl. As your flex your spine and lower your body down, be sure to keep your body weight evenly distributed on the balls of your feet (so don’t rock forward onto your toes, and don’t keep leaning back onto your heels). Also try not to lean your hips backward (this is a common mistake you can make when your hamstrings are tight), so tuck your bottom in, engage your quads (knees locked) in order to accentuate the stretch into your hamstrings.
When you are nearing the limit of your stretch, you should aim to keep your spine in one uniform, curved shape with your back as flat as possible. It’s really useful to get a friend to video you from the side doing this movement, then you can see where you need to tweak and adjust. Think about activating your belly and sucking it into your spine. A handy trick is to try get your chest to touch your knees, this will keep your back straight while your stretch and will work to deepen your stretch. It is crucial to keep your knees locked and perfectly straight while you (actively) hang out in the weighted stretch position. Do not forget to breath whilt you are down there. Hold this position for 3-5 seconds when you are just starting out, but aim for longer holds (work up to 60 seconds) with time.
Prevent injury by focusing intently on core engagement and glut engagement on the roll up. Keep your focus and awareness, move slowly as you curl up each individual vertebra and reverse your body back up to standing. It is VERY IMPORTANT to keep your chin tucked the entire way back up. The last movement you should perform is untucking your chin and looking forward.
The Jefferson Curl is a wonderful exercise that stretches your hamstrings, lumbar fascia and your lower traps. As you incrementally add more weights to this movement, the benefits of the J-curl increase
How often should I Jefferson Curl?
I personally do Jefferson Curls as part of my cool down or warm up to every workout I do. They wake up the spine and wake up the body and I can train with reduced risk of injury. However, if you are new to this exercise, I would recommend incorporating it into your training slowly. Start by doing 3 sets of 10 curls once a week. Your first set must be unweighted (or using an unloaded bar). Each set thereafter, you can add additional weights. You should not be curling more than 2-4 kg initially; be patient with your body and allow it to adapt slowly to prevent injury. Bear in mind it is easier to go down into the stretch, coming out (injury free) is where the risks lie. Work with a weight that allows you to freely move in (and OUT) of the jefferson curl, feeling good and strong. Remember that this is an endurance exercise. Completing one or two reps is not helpful. You must aim to complete at least 10 -15 reps comfortably, without any stress or strain. So keeping the exercise unweighted or with very light weights and completing more reps is more beneficial.
Only once you are completely comfortable with the movements in and out of your Jefferson Curl should you can begin to add more weight. Remain at the same weighted stretch for at least 4 weeks before attempting to add more weight. Mobility should be trained much slower than strength and you do need to exercise patience and perseverance. Your ligaments and muscles take much longer to become accustomed to a certain flexibility range and if you rush your body, you will get injured. Allow your body the time it needs to move through the load, de-load and stretch required in this movement and you will truly reap the benefits of the Jefferson Curl. Measure your progress in weeks and months, not days!
Enjoy the weighted stretch and I’d love to hear your feedback on how your body has benefited from this truly amazing cross-training technique.