Numerous health and fitness organizations, such as the NIH (National Institutes of Health), estimate that at least 80% of people will experience low back pain during their lives. There are many factors that contribute to back pain, such as weak or tight muscles, sedentary lifestyle (lack of exercise), poor posture, and improper lifting or core stabilization mechanics, just to name a few.
This is part 5 of VFT’s Abdominal series. If you’ve missed the previous 4 you can access them here:
Part 1: The Bona Fide Facts On Abdominal Exercises and Fat Loss
Part 2: Avoid These Frustrating Abdominal Training Mistakes By Using These Simple Effective Techniques!
Part 3: How To Integrate Ab Exercises Into Your Training Program
Part 4: Understanding Core Exercises – Get the Real Rundown!
Low back pain is almost always caused by a combination of factors and the underlying problems usually develop slowly over a number of years and are not caused by a single incident. Even when someone suffers an acute back injury, such as when improperly lifting a heavy object, previously existing low back and/or abdominal muscle issues almost certainly contribute to the injury. In other words, if you have a healthy core, you have a much lower chance of experiencing back injuries or pain.
It may be tempting to think that the best approach to prevent or correct back pain is to strengthen your low back muscles, but that is not always a good idea. More often than not, low back pain is not the result of weak back muscles, but rather overworked back muscles combined with weak or poor functioning abdominal muscles.
Low back and abdominal muscles have to work together in order to protect and support your spine and low back. If some muscles are too weak or not functioning correctly, the other muscles are forced to pick up the slack. In most cases, the abdominal muscles are the real problem and not the back muscles. If your abs are too weak or do not contract appropriately, the low back muscles are forced to do the work of both your abs and your back.
The back muscles may be able to do the extra work for a while, but eventually they will become overused, which is one of the main causes of low back pain. When low back muscles are overworked, further training will not strengthen them, but rather just make them more worn out, which can further increase pain and discomfort. The back muscles should eventually be strengthened, but not until the low back starts feeling better and the muscles have some time to rest and heal.
Instead, it is better to work on improve your abdominal muscles, but only certain types of exercises are effective for this particular task. The goal is not only to improve the physical ability of your abs (strength, endurance, etc.), but also to train them contract and stabilize the low back correctly. Most importantly, this training has to be done without putting additional stress on any already worn out or painful low back muscles.
Fortunately, there are a number of exercises that are technically simple and very effective, although it may take some time to learn the correct technique and get the maximum benefit from doing them.
Important note: If you have back problems, you should consult a medical professional before using these or other exercises. These exercises rarely cause problems and they almost always help reduce pain and improve back health, but only if you use good technique and the right exercise difficulty for your current ability level. Otherwise, they could cause further strain to your back muscles.
The exercises that have the most initial benefit for your low back are ones that maximize your ability to contract your abs as stabilizers while minimizing the contribution from your back muscles. The back muscles will probably still work a little, but it should be nowhere near as much as your abs. If you feel you back muscles as much or more than your abs, definitely stop the exercise.
The best starting exercises all include the same type of muscular contraction, although there are different movement patterns and difficulty levels depending on the exercise. They are also all performed laying on your back and they do not require any equipment, so they can easily be done almost anywhere.
Since it is not possible to adequately describe the technique of all the exercises in this article, I will focus on explaining the abdominal contraction that is necessary in all of the exercises. The accompanying video will show more of the actual exercise technique and cover a number of the different exercises of varying levels of difficulty.
The key to performing any of these exercises well is to maintain a sustained abdominal contraction throughout the exercise. The basic contraction, which is an exercise by itself, involves simply contracting your abs (your lower abs around your belly button) while lying on the floor with your knees bent. The thing that really makes this exercise effective is keeping your low back flat and pushing into the ground the entire time.
It is the combination of consciously contracting your abs and pushing your low back into the ground that teaches the abs to work as stabilizers. This also helps the low back muscles relax and prevents them from straining. All of the other exercises involve maintaining this contraction and the more difficult the exercise, the more difficult it is to keep your low back pushing into the floor.
With this initial contraction/exercise, there should be virtually no strain on your low back, so you can really focus on the contraction. It is also important to relax the rest of your body as much as possible. At first, some people end up tensing muscles in other areas, such as their shoulders, neck, and legs. This is usually a sign of either weak abs or a lack of abdominal muscle control, but it will improve with practice.
Even though it may not seem like this simple exercise would do much, practising this contraction has helped many people reduce their back pain, improve the function of their abs, and safely prepare their core for more challenging exercises. Once you become comfortable maintaining this contraction, you can them move on to more challenging exercises, such as those shown in the video.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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