One of the most common ailments I see in clients is back pain. Pain in the lower to middle back can mean many things. Most back pain is muscle injury or soreness but some pains can indicate serious internal injury or disease. In this column I will deal with the muscle and ligament related soreness. If you are not sure as to the source of a persistent back pain, then you should see a doctor to determine its source before starting any exercise routine.
The back is not a separate muscle from the rest of the body. It is one part of the entire torso along with the front abdominal muscles and side obliques. These are not single muscles as much as they are groups of muscles. For our purposes we can stick with the more familiar terms, back, abs, and obliques.
Most muscles are attached to only two bones. The torso muscles are unique because they are attached over a series of many bones called our spine. The spine is very flexible and bends easy. We would not be able to keep the spine upright and would not be able to stand or walk were it not for the many overlapping muscles and ligaments all around the spine. When we lean forward or bend over, it is the back muscles that must contract to keep us from falling forward. The torso, however, needs all the muscles including the abs and obliques in order to remain erect. Our daily activity uses the back muscles far more than the abs or obliques so the abs and obliques become weaker and out of balance with the back muscles. Now, the back muscles have double duty. Not only do they have to perform their own job, but now they have most of the responsibility of keeping the torso upright. Eventually they can no longer handle the extra load and they fail. They either become inflamed, sore, or worse, they rip.
The solution is two-fold. First, we must build the strength of the other torso muscles so as to put them back in balance with the back. We can do this with a simple, crunch-like exercise performed while laying down in bed or on a couch or floor. While on your back, bring your feet and knees together and slide your feet as close to your buttocks as you can. Your knees will bend up. From this position, gently curl your chest towards your hips. Notice we are not performing a “sit-up.” We are not raising our torso. We are only gently curling the torso. You may place your hands wherever you want, usually palms down to the sides of your hips. The movement is small and your shoulder blades need not come up. When performed as described, it will work your abdominal muscles. Fifteen slow repetitions of this movement, twice a day, will result in stronger abs in about seven to nine days. We are not trying to build six-pack abs, we only want to start the process of re-balancing the strength of the front torso muscles, the abs, with the back torso muscles, the back. This is a muscle balancing movement, not a muscle building movement. The obliques are partially worked by this exercise.
The second part of our back solution is to keep the back muscles from shortening. When a muscle is injured, it will repair itself with new scar tissue. If that tissue is built on a muscle that is not moved, then that new tissue will rip when the muscle eventually is moved. We don’t want that. An exercise to prevent the back muscle from repairing too short is a simple stretch. It even starts in the same position as the other exercise: on your back, knees up, feet on the ground. While in this position, wrap both hands around one knee and gently tug that knee towards your chest. Depending on your flexibility and body type, the knee may move only a little or a lot. Either amount is okay and will accomplish what we want—a gentle stretch on the back muscles. Hold the position for about ten seconds. Now do the same for the other knee. If you do this two or three times a day while building the abdominal muscles you will re-balance your torso, protecting your back from further injury.
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