Core Workouts are not just for developing your abdominals, they are also a vital for strengthening your back. Back pain is one of the main causes of time off work – it is the second biggest cause of sick leave. Staying active and exercising your core muscles can reduce damage and long-term problems. 1 in 2 people will suffer from back pain during their lives, and for around 15% of people back pain becomes a chronic condition.
Exercises To Reduce Back Pain
Moderate back pain can often be successfully treated with some moderate core strengthening exercises. Back pain results when the spine struggles to support the weight of the body. By increasing core strength, i.e. abdominal strength, the core helps to support the back, so more work is done by the supporting muscles, alleviating the pressure on the spinal column.
These simple exercises that can be performed, without any apparatus, by anyone suffering from moderate back pain.
Back Exercise 1: Crunches
Crunches are an excellent way to strengthen the core. Whereas traditional sit ups can place too much pressure on the neck and back, with crunches the spine is under no stress. By building stronger abs you help to form a natural corset, which tightens the waist and supports the lower back.
Back Exercise 2: Quads
Quads are performed by first kneeling on the floor, on all fours. Then, while looking ahead, the right arm and left leg are both lifted and extended, and held for a short count. The longer you hold, the more you work the muscles. So start easy, and work up as your strengthen your core.
Back Exercise 3: Back Arches
Back arches / “Supermans” are performed by lying face down on the floor, with arms stretched out forwards in front of you. Then both arms and legs are lifted off the ground, and the back arches slightly. Hold this position. Keep the head/neck relaxed and in the most comfortable position. To start with the hands can be held behind on the lower back if performing the full “Superman” pose is too difficult. As you progress, the exercise can be performed with light dumbbells and ankle weights, to further strengthen the core.
Back Exercise 4: The Plank
Plank and side planks are great stability exercises. The plank is performed by supporting the body on either the forearms or the hands and feet, in a classic press up position. Keep the back straight at all times. If the back starts to sag slightly, this is because you are tiring, so stop. Abdominals must be engaged and if you do not quickly feel your abdominals tiring then you are not doing the plank properly.
The side plank can be performed in either a half or full position. The side plant is performed by supporting the body on just one hand, with the feet close together. The other hand is held up vertically. To perform a half side plank, you support the body on one elbow with the forearm on the ground, with the feet together. See the Side Plank Yoga pose for more on this.
Core Workouts For a Stronger Back
Your goal of a strong back is best achieved by making core workouts a part of your regular strength training regime. Exercising the core muscles should not be overlooked even though these are mainly comprised of muscles that you cannot even see.
So why are they important? Also known as the stabilizer muscles, the core group runs the length of the torso keeping your body balanced while supporting the spine. Not only does a strong core help in sports performance and for doing daily tasks, maintaining these muscles will give you better posture and will help control and even eliminate chronic lower back pain.
If you believe that abdominal and back exercises are serving the purpose for core workouts, think again. Core training exercises are more specific than just trying to do ab isolating exercises. There are hundreds of core exercises that will effectively train the stabilizers from all directions, and as a direct result, they will tighten up the abs and love handles as well.
What are the Core Muscles?
Generally the core muscles are those that are located in the mid torso the front belly and the mid and lower back.
The 29 major muscles that make up the core group include:
- The rectus abdominis (a.k.a. the six-pack)
- The internal and external obliques on the sides of the waist
- The deep transverse abdominis (TVA) which is located under the obliques
Next are those in the back running along the spine:
- The erector spinae
Minor core muscles (but still important) include the pelvic floor made up of the glutes and hip flexors.
Stabilize your Core with Abdominal Bracing
During core workouts, you want to tense your stomach muscles as if you are about to be punched there, and hold that during the duration of each exercise. You should not do what is called the abdominal hollowing technique; that is, sucking in your belly button towards your spine which will result in you being off balance during the reps.
Studies show that bracing is more effective for stabilizing the lumbar spine than the hollowing technique.
Bracing causes the contraction of the abdominal group, but especially the TVA which is the primary core muscle. The idea is not to hold your breath during the exercise but simply breathe out and in while bracing as you would for any lift.
This technique is important to core workouts since it will effectively allow the primary and secondary muscle groups to do their jobs. By tensing the ab muscles, the obliques and the TVA get the optimum workout. Hollowing, or sucking in your belly, calls for less engagement of the obliques and the transverses in the exercise.
Try These Core Strength Exercises
To do the best core workouts all you need is just yourself and a mat. (You can use equipment such as a fitness ball to perform variations.) Bodyweight exercises are ideal for the core as long as you do them effectively using the abdominal bracing technique described above. The basic exercises for the core include:
- Plank – the fundamental isolation exercise for the core
- Side Plank
- Supine Bridge
- Bicycle exercise
- Hanging Leg Raises
- Hip Twists
- Captain’s Chair
- Ab crunch
- Toe Touches
The plank is more often seen in Yoga and Pilates but it should be done by anyone pursuing core workouts as well as bodyweight training techniques. It is the mack daddy of all exercises for your internal core ab group.
How to do the Plank
Lie face down with your elbows on floor next to your chest. Keeping your body and legs in a straight line, brace your abs and push up off the floor using your elbows as support. Only your elbow, forearms, and toes, will be in contact with the mat. Hold the pose for 30 seconds and do as many reps as you can.
Work the Core to Hit the Back and Abs
If you’ve even suffered back pain you are probably already looking for exercises to strengthen your back muscles and avoid future strains. Although brief, the list above is just a sample of the easy exercises that require no equipment and are recommended by trainers everywhere for effectively targeting the vital stabilizer muscles.
By taking some time to incorporate core workout routines into your weekly training regime, you will be targeting the muscles that will help to protect the back and flatten the stomach, as well as improve your balance and coordination during other weight bearing workouts and daily activity.
Core Stability Exercises Better than Physiotherapy
A study published in June 2010 reported that core stability exercises are a more effective treatment for people with chronic lower back pain that are suffering from movement and balance problems than more conventional physiotherapy.
In the study conventional physiotherapy was effective at reducing disability scores and fear avoidance in a questionnaire but postural control was not improved significantly. For those who performed core stability exercises significant improvements were seen in spinal strength which improved both balance and posture. The improvements were thought to be caused by improvements in load transfer patterns amongst those with back problems.
If you wish to strengthen further learn about weight training for the back. If you have a back problem exercise really does help. However, take extreme care with weight training. Start by using light weights and check your form is correct before performing heavy lifts. Take it easy, but still exercise.
Complimentary Back Exercises
Other exercises for a bad back that are beneficial are the cobra, cat stretch and downward dog. These are actually traditional yoga asanas (postures). The cobra is performed in a similar way to the plank, but rather than keeping the back straight, it is curved with the hips touching the floor and the chest pushed forward, with the chin up.
The cat stretch follows this nicely, and is done by lifting the backside up, keeping the knees on the floor, and then looking down and arching the back upwards.
Downward dog is performed by supporting your body on hands and feet, and lifting the backside upwards, so that your body forms a triangle. The cat stretch is a good starting position for this posture. These yoga exercises compliment one another well and also help with back pain.
In fact yoga is an excellent form of exercise to take up to help with back pain, however, if you do take a class, inform the instructor that you suffer from back pain, as some postures require modification to reduce pressure on the spine. Pilates is another system that can benefit people with back pain
When performing any of these exercises always move in and out of the posture slowly. Never move rapidly, or bounce, as this places too much stress on the joints, ligaments and muscles. As these exercises are low impact, so can be performed on a regular basis. Always train at a pace that feels comfortable to you, and if you feel any additional pain or discomfort then stop and rest until another day.
Alexander Technique Treats Long Term Back Pain
Research carried out at Bristol and Southampton universities and published in August 2008 has showed that the Alexander Technique is effective at treating back pain.
Head of research, Professor Debbie Sharp, said using the Alexander technique should provide help to most people with back pain.
“Lessons in the Alexander technique offer an individualised approach to develop skills that help people recognise, understand, and avoid poor habits affecting postural tone and neuromuscular coordination. It can potentially reduce back pain by limiting muscle spasm, strengthening postural muscles, improving coordination and flexibility, and decompressing the spine.” – Professor Debbie Sharp
The research found that by the end of the study period, the Alexander patients suffered just three days back pain a month.
This compared to 21 days for those receiving GP care, which tended to include regular consultations, pain killers and exercise regimes for some, and 14 for those who had massages.
“There is little evidence available about the effectiveness of the Alexander technique so this research is welcome. The Alexander technique is something we do recommend and the feedback we have got is good. But I would say that it may not be effective for everyone. Back pain is different for each person and you often need a combination of things to help relieve it.” Dries Hettinga, Back Care.
The Alexander Technique Method
The Alexander Technique teacher provides verbal instructions while monitoring and guiding with hands-on assistance in order to help the student to change their previous physical habits. This specialized assistance requires Alexander teachers to demonstrate what they are attempting to communicate to the student.
The Alexander Technique is considered to be an educational technique to be practised by the student on their own, rather than a curative treatment. It is designed to be used while doing any other activity, so there are no prescriptive forms or exercises recommended as a proscriptive separate practice time – with the exception of lying semi-supine as a recommended means of effective rest.
Fun Fact: The English novelist Aldous Huxley was strongly influenced by F. M. Alexander and the Technique so much so that he included him as a character in the pacifist theme novel Eyeless in Gaza published in 1936.
“The differential effects of core stabilization exercise regime and conventional physiotherapy regime on postural control parameters during perturbation in patients with movement and control impairment chronic low back pain.” by Ramprasad Muthukrishnan, Shweta D Shenoy, Jaspal S Sandhu, Sankara Nellikunja and Svetlana Fernandes. Published in Sports Medicine, Arthroscopy, Rehabilitation, Therapy & Technology 2010. Published: 1 June 2010