Build a Resilient Spine: Start Here

Matthew Ibrahim

Coach

Medford, Massachusetts, United States

Strength Training, Mobility & Recovery

You wake up with a sore lower back, and you go to bed feeling the same way. The discomfort is a constant reminder of how deconditioned you are. Trust me, I’ve been there. You know there’s something wrong. What gives?

 

If you’re dealing with debilitating lower back pain that just won’t relent, you’d benefit most from physical therapy and rehabilitation treatment. However, most people aren’t at that stage. Rather, they’re just dealing with a weak lower back, and are in dire need of good strength training.

 

 

But there’s something in between physical therapy and strength training. This is the grey area otherwise known as “prevention.”

 

Prevention Is Synonymous With Training

Mike Boyle talks about how “[ACL] injury prevention is just good training.” Replace the word “ACL” with “lower back,” and this statement still holds true. Check every physical therapy treatment program and look into their exercise prescription for rehabbing the lower back. Do the same thing for all strength and conditioning training programs, and see which exercises they’re using to build core strength and stability for their clients.

 

You’ll notice a trend. There’s an overlap that can’t be denied. Most of these exercises are the same for both ends of the spectrum, with the only difference being various levels of progressions, regressions, and intensity.

 

Let’s look at these overlapping exercises to build a resilient spine, and how you can incorporate them into your training.

 

Exercises for a healthy back.

These four exercises are insurance for your back. Upper left: RKC plank; Upper right: Side plank; Lower left: Bird-Dog; Lower right: Half-kneeling chop.

 

Proper Alignment Sets Your Foundation

The most important aspect to conditioning your core and building integrity in your spine is proper alignment of your rib cage over your pelvis. Imagine your rib cage representing the top floor of a building and your pelvis representing the bottom floor of a building. If you don’t want this building to collapse, the top floor (rib cage) needs to sit in proper alignment directly positioned over the bottom floor (pelvis).

 

Improper alignment of the rib cage and pelvis ultimately leads to an unstable midsection that isn’t primed for power output. This can cause the ribs to flare out or an anterior pelvic tilt with excessive arching in the lumbar spine. You can’t build strength from this position. Either an injury or general soreness is likely to occur.

 

The first step to acquiring proper alignment is to incorporate breathing patterns for optimal positioning. Breathing can seem boring, but it is one of the most beneficial skills you can develop. Breathing drills should be a staple in every training program, as it will transfer directly into stronger, more powerful lifts and movements.

 

Do This:

  1. Inhale through nose for 3 seconds.
  2. Exhale through mouth for 6 seconds. That equals 1 rep.
  3. Perform 10 reps.

 

 

 

The Lumbar Spine Was Built to Stabilize

Train function, not anatomy. This is especially true when it comes to your core and lower back. The spine is a unique multi-segmental joint that requires mobility and stability in different areas to operate at full capacity.

 

Sequence of joints

The joint areas of the body alternate in purpose between mobility and stability.

 

Per the joint-by-joint approach, the lumbar spine is meant for stability. Below it we find the hip joints, and above it we find the thoracic spine. In both of these areas, we’re looking for the opposite of stability: mobility. Having adequate mobility in the hip joints and thoracic spine enhances our ability to create stability in the lumbar spine.

 

With this concept, we can begin to appreciate that the lumbar spine was intended for stability. Building stability in the lumbar spine is the most essential aspect to core development.

 

Below are four exercises that will serve as your building blocks for creating a strong and stable lower back:

 

  1. RKC plank
  2. Side plank
  3. Bird-Dog
  4. Half-kneeling chop

 

1. RKC Plank

This is hands-down the most important exercise you will ever do. It has a direct transfer into every other exercise and movement. The RKC plank will teach you how to brace yourself while under the stress of a heavy load by allowing you to feel a challenging stabilization demand in your entire body due to the maximum full-body tension you create.

 

This exercise uses the same spinal position you created in the 90/90 wall breathing exercise. You also need your big upper back muscles (i.e., latissimus dorsi) and posterior chain muscles (i.e., glutes, hamstrings) to fire on all cylinders.

 

Be sure to use slow and controlled breathing.

 

Do This:

  1. Hold plank for 10 seconds.
  2. Rest for 10 seconds.
  3. Hold plank for 10 seconds. That equals 1 set.
  4. Perform 3 sets.

 

 

2. Side Plank

This side plank incorporates the same concepts learned in the 90/90 wall breathing exercise and also in the RKC plank. The only difference now is that you’ll be on one side, which makes the exercise more challenging.

 

Set yourself up on the ground while lying on one side. From there, drive your elbow down toward your feet to fire your upper back muscles, which are critical for spinal stabilization and breathing.

 

Pop up into your side plank. Be sure to squeeze your glutes and abs, just like you did in the RKC plank to create full-body tension and stabilization.

 

Do This:

  1. Hold side plank for 10 seconds on left side.
  2. Hold side plank for 10 seconds on right side. That equals 1 set.
  3. Perform 3 sets per side.

 

 

3. Bird-Dog

Dr. Charlie Weingroff talks about stability being “control in the presence of change.” This always makes me think of the bird-dog exercise. The primary goal here is to maintain the same full-body tension as in the RKC plank exercise while extending your contralateral limbs (i.e., right arm and left leg). Pause once you return, and then alternate.

 

This exercise might look easy, but it often poses a challenge due to increased stability demands.

 

Do This:

  1. Extend right arm and left leg simultaneously.
  2. Bring both limbs back to the starting position.
  3. Extend left arm and right leg simultaneously.
  4. Bring both limbs back to the starting position. That equals 1 rep per side.
  5. Complete 8 reps per side.
  6. Perform a total of 3 sets.

 

 

4. Half-Kneeling Chop

The half-kneeling chop is a challenging position that requires tension in your core and hips to stabilize the body. Adding in the arm chop across the body is a good way to disassociate lower body stability (i.e., core and hips) and upper body mobility (i.e., shoulders and minor thoracic spine rotation).

 

This exercise is a great way to display your ability to control your lower body in the presence of change - in this case, upper body movement.

 

Do This:

  1. With your right knee up and closest to the pulley, chop down from your right shoulder down to your left-hand pocket. That equals 1 rep.
  2. Complete 8 reps on that side.
  3. Switch sides and repeat for 8 reps. That equals 1 set.
  4. Perform a total of 3 sets.

 

 

Build a Supple Spine

Movement and performance should never be robbed by lower back pain. You should be moving, performing, and training with a resilient spine that is built to last. Spinal stabilization is your first step toward building that resiliency for the long term. Your movement and performance will make strides once you’ve mastered these basic exercises.

 

More Ways to Keep Your Back Healthy:

 

Photo collage courtesy of Matthew Ibrahim.

Headline photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

 

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