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Core Exercises For a Strong and Healthy Back

How to exercise for a bad back

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



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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.

Core Workouts For a Stronger Back

Core workoutsYour 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.


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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
  • Multifidus

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.


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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
  • Superman
  • Toe Touches
  • V-sits

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.


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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.

References:

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

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  9 comments for “Core Exercises For a Strong and Healthy Back

  1. Sushma
    December 28, 2010 at 7:34 am

    Hi I m 24 year’s old and my weight is 85kg. Please give me some tips to fast reduce weight I want 55kg weight and fit body for my marriage so please help me how can I reduce my weight…

    Waiting for ur reply

    Regards
    Sushma dhir

  2. MotleyHealth
    December 28, 2010 at 8:51 am

    Hi Sushma. Firstly, to lose 1kg a week you need to reduce daily calorific intake by 1000kcal a day below your maintenance level. So for a 24 year old woman that is around 1350, if you are doing a lot of exercise, or 1100 if you are not doing much exercise (see How Many Calories Do You Need). Diet must remain healthy and well balanced though – so make every calorie count (i.e. full of nutrients, no empty carbs).

    For exercise, a combination of bodyweight circuit training, intensive cardio and weight training works best. Try our weekly fitness workout and see how you get on,

  3. Connor
    December 23, 2011 at 1:18 am

    Hi I am wondering why I have so much weight around my stomach and “love handles”. Last year I lost 13 pounds in 6 weeks with a personal trainer but to be honest the gym membership and personal training sessions were too expensive. I kept up running 3 times a week, doing about 6 miles per day up a mountain where I had lots of varying incline and terrain. I felt great but I couldn’t lose any more weight. I actually don’t care about weight it’s just my middle section that looks bad in t-shirts and is really stressing me out.
    At the moment I have relocated to Canada. I walk the 2 miles to work and 2 miles home at a brisk pace (its pretty cold!!) and end up working a bit of a sweat even in -15 lol!
    My typical day consists of the following:

    Breakfast: Rice Krispies with Semi-Skimmed Milk and glass or two of Pure Orange (not from concentrate)

    —Walk to work, brisk pace—work 8 hours, 5 days a week—

    Lunch: Bagel with a little butter, 6 slices of tomato and a little Parmesan cheese sprinkled. Cup of coffee with skimmed milk

    —Walk home, brisk pace—

    Dinner: Usually either of the following: A bowl or two of homemade Irish Stew with carrots, onion and meat. OR Shepard’s pie with carrots and onions and meat. OR Chicken Fajitas (3-4) OR Spaghetti Bolognaise.
    I usually have either a couple of glasses of pure orange or a bottle of Pepsi Max.

    I don’t usually eat any more than that, perhaps the occasional few chips, a biscuit or something like that. Nothing much at all and I do believe in having a little of what you like can’t be bad.

    I’m just wondering is there any more exercises I can do other than walking. It’s very dangerous to run outside as there too much ice. I just really need to get rid of these love handles!!! Any help would be amazing :)

    Thanks

  4. MotleyHealth
    December 23, 2011 at 1:21 am

    Hi Connor, there are lots of indoor exercises that you can do. Look at our home exercise article and especially the calisthenics workouts.

  5. kwesi
    January 6, 2012 at 6:46 am

    I have being working out in my room always but wd want to know if I shd eat right after working out since I working at reducing my stomach fat. secondly what time shd I eat supper and also can I take natural fruit mix like banana and Orange just before sleeping. thank you.

  6. MotleyHealth
    January 6, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Time of eating does not make much difference for fat loss. Eating after your workout is advised to prevent muscle wastage though. Something light like some fruits is ideal. To reduce stomach fat you have to cut out all the junk, so yes, you need to eat healthy.

  7. Peggy
    January 16, 2012 at 11:08 pm

    I am 5′ 155lbs 61 year old female. I want to get to 112lbs is that possible. What do I have to do to get there. I go to the gym 3 days a week do cardo 45 mins. Just started doing body express by Tony Little at 30 mins. I try to eat right, breakfast special k, lunch small salad, snacks greek yogurt.I don’t know what else to do.

  8. MotleyHealth
    January 17, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Hi Peggy, you are doing the right things. If you can manage to lose 1 pound a week then you will reach your goal in 43 weeks. You have to take your time and keep working on getting fitter and eating healthier and enjoying your more active lifestyle!

  9. denis
    March 2, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Hi Peggy, Im 48 and I have a bad back. I managed to lose 27 lbs. from Dec.4 2011 till march 1 2012. I chose to ignore most diets and opted to do hours of research on google. I set my goal for three months to go from 211 lbs. to 180 lbs. Lean muscle training with the right foods. So light weights with lots of sets with fewer reps. Need to do exercise to cover from your head to toes three days a week. 20 min. in the morning and 20 min. in the evening and 8 hours sleep. “Only the begining”you must find your own comfort groove so it become a routine of enjoyment. Working out alone is not fun get a friend pumped to get buff and sexy with you. Now onto food, there is a lot of bull**** labels on dieting and the marketing of food. # 1 no sugar, #2 no sodium, #3 stay away from processed foods that have stuff on the label that you can`t spell off the top of your head. Preservatives once in your body are like toxins that preserve your fat. Eggs for breakfast with slice tomato ( no home fries ) cook with low sodium butter or olive oil. Fiber one cereal with skimmed or 1% milk. Small snack between breakfast and lunch (pears or apple) have a turkey or chicken sandwich for lunch with low sodium soup (no crackers and i loose the bread for the sandwich) get it… Snack between lunch and supper try almonds and veggies like celery and peppers, tomatoes. Supper will have to be one moderate plate of goodness such as skinless chicken with brown rise and peas or Brussel sprouts. Plan something to snack on in evening like cut up celery with lemon juice and pepper or dill flakes. Remember you must find goodness foods you will like or you won`t stick to the diet. The main trick I found is to eat 6 times a day no bigger than your fist. This will help shrink your stomach so you are not hungary all the time. There is no miracle diets only your self motivation and determination. Start today for a healthier tomorrow, I did and the abs are starting to show and I feel better about what I see in the mirror. Try not to care what other think!

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