In my previous post, I talked about how costly (time, money, physical/mental costs) having back pain has been and will continue to be for so many people. I also gave a few tips on little things we can do in our daily routine that can help alleviate it, so that back issues do not turn into an ongoing thing.
“If your back is hurting, the supporting muscles around your back may be weak. Ab exercises are the way to go”
This old adage certainly continues to ring true – we can all benefit from a stronger midsection of muscles, right? After all, they are the “core” stabilizing parts of our bodies that are utilized in virtually every movement we make throughout the day.
What are these “core” muscles anyway? Where are they and what do they look like? You will likely see images on social media of people with rock hard abs and naturally think that they have a strong core. This may be true, but those “aesthetic” muscles aren’t all that a stable core is comprised of. (Prime example, a 70 year-old lady in an Orange Theory Fitness class today held a 5-minute plank! How many of you 20-30 somethings can do that?!) I didn’t (and probably would never! lol) see what her midsection looks like, but that’s some serious core strength and stability to hold a plank position for that long duration.
Let’s have a look at some of those core muscles, and focus on the ones that may be neglected by the typical “ab routine”.
As you can see, there are several layers that comprise the abdominal wall. The first, most visible layer which most of us consider “abs” or the “six-pack” is the rectus abdominis. Other, major spine-supporting muscles housed in deeper layers of the abdominal wall are the transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques. The latissimus dorsi and gluteal complex also are part of the supporting cast of muscles that keep our spine in line.
Moving downward on the body, below all of this musculature, there are also other muscles that make up the essential connection between the lower limbs and the spine.
These muscles above comprise the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, which are essential in allowing us to do one of the most basic of movements, walking.
You probably can guess where I’m going with this. If not, let me explain. As muscles get used, they maintain (or increase) their strength. That continual movement also contracts and expands the muscles, such that they have elasticity, which dictates our range of motion (ROM). When we participate in activities that require sitting for long periods of time, as an example, certain muscles don’t get the chance to contract and expand, particularly the muscles in our pelvis and hips, resulting in tightness. Furthermore, if we have poor posture, this compounds the issue as we put greater strain on that lower back (lumbar spine) and our “core”muscles” remain disengaged and unutilized.
“I’m a mom, and giving birth has been hard on my body. I just don’t have the strength I used to before I gave birth!”
Another major contributing factor are pregnancies in women! Going through childbirth (as I’ve been told) is a painful experience. Clients of mine who are mothers of multiple children tell me that their core is severely lacking stability and strength. This is due to the stretching, damaging and/or weakening of core and pelvic muscles throughout the entire childbearing process. (And this is why pre and post-natal exercise is so important, another certification I plan to pursue in the coming months).
Two other obvious limiting factors to the ability of these core muscles to perform are inactivity and obesity. As “busy” as our lives may seem, we can’t forget that, notwithstanding our requirement to use our bodies to do our jobs and take care of obligations, they are created at a primal level, to move. Immobility begets further immobility.
“Make time for health now, or make time for pain later” – Robin Sharma
One other muscle, embedded deep within our abdominal wall and lumbo-pelvic-hip complex is the psoas muscle. As you can see above, through sitting or being in a hip-flexed position for prolonged periods of time, the psoas shortens, and causes a hyper arching in the lower back known as lumbar lordosis. You’ll see this ailment commonly on the Instafamous models who accentuate their glutes for photos; this is another condition known as Instagram Lordosis (just kidding, lol). Nevertheless, lordosis is common and can be a source of lower back pain.
So what can we do about it? Besides stretching the hip-flexor muscles, there are two exercises we can do that will help:
Standing Knee Raise:
- While balance is helpful in this exercise, it is not necessary. Stand with your right knee raised, using a wall or holding on to another object with your left hand to support you (if required).
- Using a hurdle, cone or other object that is low in height, bring your right knee across your body and reach over the hurdle, touching your right toe directly in line with your left foot.
- Lift the right knee again and return to starting position, keeping in mind that the hips remain level and spine stays straight.
- Repeat for 5-10 reps x 2-3 sets for each leg, depending on how difficult this is for you.
- As you get more proficient at this exercise, progress to having a hurdle as high as your knees, and using no object to assist in stabilizing you.
(photos of me taken by Mysha Prokopchuk @myshalifts) Boulevard Park, Bellingham, WA
- Sumo squats and deep squats (beyond 90 degree knee bends) are 2 excellent exercises that engage the pelvic floor.
- Ensure to progress these exercises appropriately; meaning, start with the bodyweight versions of each. Especially when you are experiencing occasional back pain, there’s no sense putting additional load, or weight on a movement until you are able to execute the body weight version of the exercise pain free.
- Start with box squats or chair squats, ensuring engagement of your core (imagine you’re bracing your stomach to get punched!) keeping back upright.
- Repeat for 5-10 reps x 2-3 sets.
- As your proficiency with box/chair squats increases, progress to a squat movement with a greater range of motion (ROM) such as TRX -supported bodyweight deep squat and sumo squat
(screenshots of video taken by Julius Capio @thisisjulius)
So there you have it. Two fundamental movements that will no doubt reduce and alleviate that stubborn back pain you’ve been dealing with. Keep in mind, these movements do not necessarily have to be reactive, as in, these exercises can be done proactively to help prevent the onset of lower back pain in the first place. Implement these into your exercise or rehabilitation regimen, and watch that lower back health improve over time!
In my next article, I’m going to write about the benefits of EPOC, or Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, otherwise known as the Afterburn Effect. How can we turn our bodies into calorie-burning furnaces through exercise? We’ll dive deep into it and talk about ways you can take advantage of EPOC in your exercise as another tool to use in your fitness journey.
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Until next time!
Yours in fitness,