Back pain is so common in civilized societies that those who hurt are more common than those who don’t. Estimates are that roughly 80% of all Americans will suffer from back pain at some time in their life. One reason many become interested in fitness as they age is because they are desperate for relief from the constant misery, especially low back pain but upper back pain is frequent, too.
What many don’t recognize is that simply doing exercises for their back is not going to solve the problem. The reason our backs hurt is because our "core" is weak. Lots of people have heard of the core but they mistakenly believe the core is only the abdominal muscles. In decades past, women used to wear girdles and the area covered by that girdle is your core. Strengthening this critical area will relieve your miserable back pain because you will have a strong support center.
The core muscles are involved in just about every activity, from working at your computer to biking across country. To understand what must be done to relieve back pain it’s important to understand how the core works. The abdominal area includes four muscle groups:
The lower back includes two large muscles:
It is only in the last couple of decades that we’ve begun to recognize these importance of these six core muscles. If they are weak and flabby everything – including life-sustaining organs like the lungs, heart and brain – will work less efficiently.
The Rectus Abdominis
Fitness commercials invariably include a great looking guy or gal with a flat stomach and the much coveted "six pack abs". This muscle is the one responsible for the great abs – or the gut hanging over the belt. It runs from the pubic bone to the breastbone and, with only an instant of thought, we can see how important a strong rectus abdominis is to our physical well being. Strong, flexible and stretched abs are not just about vanity.
The External Obliques
Every time you twist from side to side to the slightest degree, you are using your external obliques. They are diagonal muscles that run from your pelvic bone to your lower ribs. Any efforts to permanently relieve your back pain must include stretching and strengthening these diagonal muscles that provide support to the sides of our body.
The Internal Obliques
Your internal obliques are located beneath your external obliques and are also necessary for any moment to the side. Without the obliques, we would have to turn our entire body whenever we wanted to speak with anyone sitting next to us.
The Transverse Abdominis
The transverse abdominis is the deepest of the core abdominal muscles. It runs from the front of the abdominals to the back of the body, attaching itself to the lower rib and spine. This muscle directly connects to the back and is critical for relief from back pain. However, since it connects to the rectus abdominis we can’t just concentrate on strengthening that muscle because if our rectus abdominis is weak, it won’t support a strong lower back.
The Latissimus Dorsi
The latissimus dorsi is a large, strong muscle that reaches from your lower back all the way to your upper arm. This muscle clearly illustrates that no part of the body works in isolation. To assume that since we have pain in our back we should simply focus on our back is to make an assumption that will leave us in misery – and might even make our condition worse.
The Erector Spinae
The erector spinae refers to three muscles which run the entire length of your spine on both sides and are attached to both your spine and your ribs. When people have horrible posture and find it almost impossible to sit up straight, it’s because these muscles are weak and flabby and cannot support an erect position.
It’s clear that back pain can be the result of instability and weakness in any of the six muscle areas. Further, the muscles may not work well together which will often result in back pain.
And to exacerbate this problem further, other areas may further weaken your body. For example, the muscles in your thighs may be weaker in the front which will make the tension on your spinal column uneven.
In addition to working all the muscles of the body, it’s important to pay attention to your breathing. When you breathe slowly and deeply the muscles of your diagram will participate more fully in any exercise. The result will be that your spinal column will grow stronger and longer which will help to support your lower back. Imagine a skeleton dangling in the air from a cord. We want our bodies to be as long as, and as lose as, that dangling skeleton and a supple and erect spine is indispensable.
One powerful way to get back relieve pain in a hurry is to use an exercise ball. Simply exercising on a ball requires that more muscles come into play because of the extra effort required not to fall on our faces. Exercises can be very simple, yet have profound effects.
Here’s a great back pain exercise … sit on the ball with your legs shoulder distance apart. Raise your arms to shoulder level until they are held straight out. Then simply (and carefully!) keep your torso straight and turn your body and arms from side to side. One turn to the left, back to center, and one turn to the right is one repetition. Repeat 10 times, rest for 30 seconds and repeat twice more for a total of 30.
In this way, you are exercising both the external and internal obliques, in particular, but also using the other core muscles. It might be hard to see how sitting on a ball and turning from side to side will help to relieve sometimes extreme and possibly long-term pain. But it will over time when used in careful combination with other simple exercises.
As always, when exercising be clear about your goals and carefully choose an exercise routine that you believe will help you get there in the fastest and most efficient manner. Frequently evaluate your progress and either continue with what you are doing or make changes. Above all, do not be impatient. Your aching back didn’t happen overnight but the good news is that it will likely be relieved more quickly than it was created.
Check out our Body Building & Fitness Center