Back pain as a diagnosis has an incredible effect on our economy by driving a large number of prescription medications and paid days off. It is often over-associated with the aging, overweight, or acutely injured, but the reality of lower back pain is that it can occur in people of any age or activity level, as it is caused by a very specific set of muscular imbalances.
Common, mysterious back pain happens when muscles in the core are too weak to support the lumbar spine at times of stress, or when the muscles in the front of the hips (hip flexors, quadriceps) are stronger than the muscles in the posterior chain (gluteal muscles, hamstrings).
The muscles that naturally work in tandem around the lower back and hips can become out of balance when a person overtrains, trains incorrectly (poor programming), or trains with poor form.
The problem can become compounded when there is slight inflammation or irritation that is ignored. Because the entire kinetic chain of the body is interconnected, a dysfunctional movement in one part of the body affects everything else.
For example, if the transverse abdominus muscles of the core are not strengthened regularly, other exercises such as push-ups or deadlifts can result in a back injury that is not severe enough for medical attention.
What often happens is that someone with a slight back injury will continue to exercise without addressing the underlying issue, thus compounding the problem until there is an acute injury that is incapacitating.
There are lifestyle modifications as well as exercise treatments that can improve and eliminate back pain, even if an acute injury has already occurred.
Tips for Lifestyle Changes
Eliminate the following exercises from your repertoire: touching your toes (standing or sitting), crunches, weighted side bends, and supine leg extensions. These exercises, although some are popular, can be disastrous for someone with an existing back inflammation issue or injury.
Unfortunately, some of these exercises are touted by well-meaning people as core-strengthening treatments for back pain, but the reality is that these moves put excessive pressure on the lumbar spine.
Good posture doesn’t just mean “sitting up straight.” Proper alignment of the body also involves keeping your abdominal muscles engaged and consciously changing the way you hold your hips when you are standing. Practice good posture in your daily life, including contracting your abdominal muscles .
Don’t focus too much on “flexibility.” What fitness culture glorifies as “flexibility” is often hyper-mobility or hyper-flexibility. Flexibility has nothing to do with being showy or overly bendy—it is about pain-free movement. Instead of trying to reach for your toes as a marker of flexibility, focus on self-myofascial release (foam-rolling) before and after exercise.
Tugging on stiff muscles through excessive stretching can sometimes result in more injury instead of more flexibility, and SMR helps to relax muscles effectively. Some people will never touch their toes because their bodies aren’t built that way, but everyone can live pain-free.
Here are some truly effective exercises to improve core strength and take the pressure off of the lower back.
Lie on your back with your hips, knees, and feet at 90-degree angles. Contract your abdominal muscles so that your lower back is pressed flat against the floor, and “suck in” your stomach so that your core feels very tight. Then, slowly lower one heel until it gently touches the floor, then bring it back to center. Repeat on the other side. That’s one repetition. Perform 20 repetitions.
Shift to your hands and knees. Lift your right leg and your left arm simultaneously, extending your right leg straight out behind you and your left arm straight in front of you. Hold for five breaths, then return to center. Repeat on the other side. Perform 10 repetitions on each side.
No matter how strong your upper body may be, it is essential to incorporate plank into your routine in order to strengthen your transverse abdominus muscles, which protect your back from injury. Lift yourself so that your body is supported on your toes and your forearms, and your body is in a straight line from your shoulders to your heels. Watch yourself in a mirror or have a friend give you feedback on your form. Your back should be straight and your hips should be in line. Hold for 10 breaths, then relax. Repeat two more times.
This move from yoga strengthens the powerful muscles of the back that protect your back muscles from spasms. From a plank position, push hard on your hands and lift your hips into the air so that your body is in a straight line from your hands to your hips. Relax in this position, and, if necessary, pedal the feet (one heel to the floor at a time) to stretch out the calves and hamstrings. Hold for 10 breaths, then relax. Repeat two more times.
Rachel Trotta, certified personal trainer (NASM), is the author of “Injury-Proof: 28 Days to Better Movement, Smarter Training, and an Invincible Core,” and the owner of Zenith Personal Training. Her unique modality provides effective cross-training for runners, dancers, and other high-impact athletes, but also appeals to new exercisers who want to reach their fitness potential. To read more, visit PersonalTrainingUWS.com