One of the most frequent questions that I get in my office on a day to day basis is, “what exercises can I do to strengthen my back?” For me that question is a bit of a heads up that this particular patient probably needs a bit of coaching because what would probably be a better question is, “What can I do that won’t hurt my back?” or “What exercises do hurt my back?” A fundamental premise of achieving good “core strength” to help your back is to actually get it to work less. Having a strong back, despite conventional wisdom is not necessarily what you should be looking for. You should also be wary of trying to improve low back flexibility as that is also unlikely to help with what ails you. Fact: People with low back pain tend to have stronger low back muscles. Why? Because they are putting too much load and movement through their backs, when really the lumbar spine is designed to be used as a stabilizing machine.
In general, I try not to discourage patients from doing certain activities or forms of exercise because A) they might really enjoy it and that is worth a lot and, B) a lot of times any activity is better than none. There is also rarely a hard and fast rule when it comes to exercise and knowledge is constantly shifting as to what is good for us and what is not. However in terms of helping patients become stronger and less prone to low back injury or pain there are a couple of main guidelines that should be followed in helping you select exercises that are appropriate. The key to doing proper core exercises is to have as much muscle recruitment in the muscles considered as the “core” (abs, glutes, obliques etc) while decreasing what’s known as shearing force on the back. So in simple terms do exercises that use lots of muscles, while sparing the back. With that in mind here are a few exercises that you are better off without:
Superman or Lotus Pose
This exercise is a clear violator of the spinal shearing load rule and puts tremendous force through the spine. You will see this exercise promoted all over the internet, in gyms and yoga classes as a back strengthener. I guess it is the exception to the rule that everything on the internet is true. While putting great loads on spine through recruitment of erector spinae group, it also minimizes the contribution of the glutes (which you actually want).
A staple of fitness centres everywhere, this exercise has presumably been around since the Roman empire. That doesn`t mean it is any good. Also falling in the spinal shearing no-no group, enthusiasts of this exercise will often hold a 25-35 pound weight just make the this spine crushing activity even more effective at its job. Also note the locking of the legs, to make sure your glutes (one of the strongest muscles in your body and what you should be using!) are not working at all.
I actually find it hard to believe people still do these. The big problems with sit-ups is the repetitive flexion based movement that is done. It has been well established in this area of researched that one of the easiest ways to damage a spinal disc is to put it through repetitive flexion (moreso with rotation). These are best left as a fond memory of your PE classes.
There are many examples of fine core exercises that you can be doing which both spare the spine and activate a lot of muscles at the same time. Please have a look through some of my previous articles to find examples of safe and back friendly core exercises.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.