Ask The Fitness Pro
February 9, 2023
Training your “core” could be killing your back
It’s now a familiar prescription for back pain relief – to help your back, you need to train your core. However, if you don’t understand exactly what your “core” is and how its muscles help protect your back, you could wind up doing more harm than good for your lower back pain. Your core is not simply the “ab” muscles you train when doing sit-ups or crunches – it is a complex interplay of many muscles in the front, back, sides, and deep interior of your mid-section and the primary purpose of many of these muscles is to prevent movement, not create it.
The repetitive flexing of the spine that occurs when you do crunch movements, over and over again, can cause, or exacerbate, some of the very problems you’re trying to prevent. This repetitive flexing can cause deterioration, or a “delaminating”, of your spinal discs and increase chances of pain. Similarly, if you’ve been told your back pain is from a bulging disc then excessive flexing of your spine could aggravate your condition rather than help it.
Thus, you want to do fewer exercises in which you flex forward and more exercises that involve little movement at all. This is because the main goal of your core muscles is to stabilize your spine and pelvis while you create motion with your limbs at places like your shoulder and hip joints. This core stabilization helps protect your lower back from unnecessary or damaging movement through your spine. Depending on the activities you do during a typical day, your core muscles may be trying to prevent your spine from flexing, extending, twisting, or side-bending. If this movement can’t be prevented, a slippage could occur between the vertebrae of your spine, causing nerve impingement or a disc bulge, or you could simply strain the muscles in these areas by applying a load they aren’t ready to handle. So, think of core training as “anti-movement” training.
The most common of these anti-movement training exercises is the plank. This is an anti-extension exercise because if your core muscles don’t do their jobs, your mid-section will sag towards the floor, creating extension through the spine. Likewise, the “dead bug” exercise (in which you lie on your back with your knees bent and feet in the air while you slowly straighten one leg, pause, return to start and repeat with other leg) is also an anti-extension exercise because, again, if your core muscles are not doing their jobs, your lower back will arch excessively off the floor into spinal extension.
Another group of anti-movement exercises that have become more popular include different types of “carries”. For example, hold a weight in one hand, arm hanging at your side, and walk across the room while maintaining proper posture. This is often called a suitcase carry and it’s training your core muscles to resist flexing, or bending, to the side with the weight. Waiter carries have you holding a weight aloft, like a waiter carrying a tray of dishes, while walking with proper posture. Farmer carries are similar to suitcase carries but you hold weights in both hands.
A Paloff Press is an anti-rotation exercise that can be done with a rubber exercise band or cable machine and involves you not twisting to the side (the band or cable will be pulling you into rotation and you want to prevent that from happening). A bird-dog exercise, in which you begin on your hands and knees and slowly extend one arm and the opposite leg while trying to keep your spine in a straight line, is another great anti-rotation exercise. You want to resist twisting or turning your spine as your arm and leg extend out.
Done correctly, the deadlift is a great anti-flexion exercise that involves a great many muscles at once and can develop tremendous overall strength. Done poorly, when the spine is allowed to flex, or round, during the exercise, the deadlift can lead to injury and dysfunction. Back extension holds and YWT exercises are other anti-flexion exercises that require you to maintain a neutral spine while gravity will be trying to pull you back into spinal flexion.
It’s often suggested, if you have back pain, that you “stretch” more and become looser and more flexible. This, too, can be faulty advice for some back pain sufferers since your issue may be an inability to activate the proper muscles, create muscle stiffness, and prevent movement, not a lack of flexibility. If you sit at a desk day after day, week after week, and the only remedy you apply for your back pain is to “stretch” more, you may see little progress. Your muscles are weak, not “tight”. In many cases, your muscles are inactive, or “turned off”, and you need to re-connect with these muscles and turn them back on. You need to teach your core muscles to brace and stabilize your spine, not make it looser and less stable. Getting up from your desk during your day and stretching helps, no doubt, but it might help because you’re moving more and engaging your muscles, not just because you’re “stretching,” per se.
In conclusion, to reduce or prevent back pain, consider doing fewer exercises in which you flex forward and more exercises in which you need to brace and stabilize. This includes walking as well – your core muscles are very involved in helping you walk while maintaining proper posture and pelvic alignment. So, move more and brace yourself – your back will thank you!