Conventional fitness programs will tell you that your core’s only function is to brace the spine, which should only be used as a rigid lever. But your body is designed to move fluidly, and your spine is no exception. If you stop moving your body in certain ways, it responds by blocking off those directions of movement. A lack of movement is one of the reasons I frequently see people complaining of back pain. Here are some exercises to progressively work toward a healthier back.
Disclaimer: Please take into consideration if you have had any previous injuries or have current injuries. These exercises should feel like a stretch, and should not cause any sharp or warm pain sensations.
You should be able to round your back one vertebrae at a time. If you are someone who holds your back in a constantly neutral fashion, segmental spinal flexion will be challenging due to muscle tightness in your back. A couple of unloaded exercises to edge into this are wall peels and reverse sit ups. In these movements, you are trying to roll your spine up and down, one vertebrae at a time, in flexion. Once you have established a base of movement, you can start to progressively load the movement with Jefferson curls.
Stand on a box with your legs together and straight. With your hips tucked into posterior pelvic tilt, slowly round your back one vertebrae at a time, from the top down. Start by first dropping your chin to your chest, and gradually curl over into flexion. Continue to flex the spine one vertebrae at a time until you reach the end range of your flexibility. Your first goal should be to get your wrists past your feet. Once achieved, progressively increase the weight in your hands every 8-12 weeks by about 2-5lb. Most people need to start with weights between 5 and 20lb.
Rotation is where many injuries occur because people tend to be tight and weak through their obliques. Twisting exercises and stretches will help protect your back.
My straddle complex addresses both lack of mobility and strength in the obliques. Seated in a straddle position with a weight overhead (begin with 2-5lb) reach out towards one foot and hold. Then pull yourself back up to a seated position with the weight overhead and repeat towards the other foot. Again, return to the start position. Then reach out in front as far as possible, and once again return to the start. This can be made more dynamic by twisting the torso during the holds.
Another beginner rotation exercise is the twisting side plank. In this exercise, you have to both stabilize and twist. Start in a side plank with your free hand behind your head. Then reach your free elbow to the floor and return back to the side plank position.
Bowing will again address the tight and weak obliques. One movement that can be used for both stretching and strengthening are weighted side bends. Start with very light weight (5-25lb). Begin in a standing position, holding a weight in one hand by your side, while keeping your hips and shoulders squared off. Lower the weight down the side of your leg, bowing your torso to that side until you hit the end range of your stretch. Return to a standing position, and repeat.
This aspect of spinal movement should receive regular attention to keep your back strong and torso upright. I prefer to use paused back hyperextension exercises. In these, lay prone on the floor or prone on a surface elevated off of the floor, with your feet held by something or someone. In this position, extend your back while lifting your chest as high as possible. Use everything from your hamstrings, glutes, low back and upper back to hit and hold a strong arch position.
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There are many different exercises that can address these functions of the core and spine. Whatever you decide to do, keep in mind that the correct dosage is what can make these effective. Too much, too early, too quickly, can result in injury. Give your body time to adapt to the new range of motion or weight. I suggest a minimum of 8-12 weeks on a specific movement with a specific weight before moving on. This gives the joints and connective tissue time to strengthen.
Twisting, flexion, and bowing are crucial for maintaining the fluidity and motion of your spine. Your spine was not meant to only experience one plane of motion, and avoiding these varied directions of movement will make you more susceptible to injury when you are exposed to them in even minor tasks, like getting up off of the floor or putting away groceries. Try them out for a few weeks, and I guarantee you will begin to notice improvement in the way you feel and carry yourself.