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Low Back Pain – Exercise Principles

October 18, 2010

Before we get into specific low back exercises I’d like for you to understand the principles behind them and why they’re beneficial.  In fact, once you know the main principles you can apply them in many exercise situations so that working on your core becomes a “core” part of your work-out.  The three principles I discuss today stem from the last post in that they promote health (not performance) and they follow the principle of specificity.

Principle 1:  Maintain a neutral spine position

You may (or may not) have noticed that your spine, when viewed from the side is anything but straight.  It has a few distinct curves.  Much like a coiled spring, the architecture of these curves impart strength, maneuverability and shock absorption critical for healthy spine functioning.  We’ll focus on the curve in your low back called the Lumbar Lordosis.  When standing at attention, with good posture, the lordosis in your low back is maintained.  This is the neutral and healthy resting position for your low back.  It’s the position where all of the the forces that can act on your low back are the most balanced.  Structurally speaking it is also the safest position for your low back to be in when performing the physical tasks of daily living.  Exercises meant to enhance the function of your core should therefore maintain your low back in that neutral position.

Principle 2:  Actively brace your core muscles during exercise

Give this a try:  Find a comfortable position, either sitting or standing.  Make sure you’re able to have your spine in its natural, neutral position.  Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand in the small of your low back.  Now take a few moments and cough.  You should be able to feel the muscles both front and back (and even at the sides) tighten-up.  That’s the feeling you should have when actively bracing your core.  I want you to try it again, but this time don’t cough or even exhale.  Just try to contract the muscles.  If it helps, imagine that you’re a circus performer about to take a cannon ball to the stomach (because that’s something we can all relate to).  To prepare for the impact you don’t push your gut out, and you don’t suck it in.  You just contract the muscles around your core so that they’re ready to provide support.  When exercising, this is what your low back needs in order to stay stable and maintain normal motion.

Principle 3:  Breathe independently of the exercise

This is a fun one.  And by fun…I mean difficult.  Most of you are familiar with working out.  Typically during your exercise routine you perform a certain number of repetitions for a specific exercise.  And how do you usually keep track of how many reps you’ve done?  You count along with your breathing.  Lift the weight up, breathe out “one…”.  Lower the weight down, breathe in.  Lift the weight up, breathe out “two…”.  Lower the weight down, breathe in.  We’ve all been taught this at some point (I can remember this back in my grade 8 gym class).  There’s a flaw to this pattern, however, and it’s this:  When lifting up and breathing out your core muscles automatically tighten providing support.  Good.  But when you lower the weight and breathe in your core muscles start to relax.  This in turn means there is less support for your spine and leaves a potential opening for injury.  What you should try to do is to breath out of sync from the movement that you’re doing.  This is much easier said than done because it’s so in-grained in us to count our reps with our breath.  The purpose, though, is to keep your core stable throughout a variety of movements, positions and stresses.  Practicing this will train your muscles to be prepared for both active, high intensity sports as well as everyday activity.  For those of you not sure how this ties into the principle of specificity in exercise for daily life tasks, think about this:  When you go to open your car door, do you time your breath, or do you just pull?  When you kick a soccer ball, do time your breath, or do you just kick?  When you stoop to pick up your keys from the floor, do you time your breath?  Unless you’re being difficult, the answer is you just do it.  And your muscles should be trained to support you accordingly.

Over the next few posts I’ll apply these principles to some specific low back exercises.

For more information on exercise and back pain contact Guelph Chiropractors at Clear Path Chiropractic Health Centre.

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