Have you ever had a sore back and wondered what you did to cause it? Maybe it was the way you slept or something you did at the gym. But no matter what caused it, back pain is never pleasant. However, we can avoid these events in the future by incorporating some simple preventative measures into our training routine.
These preventative measures include performing basic core exercises to set a solid foundation, as well as compound lifts to add resiliency to the low back. This will ensure that if you do happen to move in a way that could tweak your back, your body will be ready to handle it and you won't be forced to sit out for weeks while recovering from a random strain or spasm.
Before we get to the exercises, the first step in building a resilient back is to mentally prepare for the exercises. When we tweak our backs, there is an immediate fear of performing any exercise that may put some stress on the muscles of the back, so we often avoid them all together. But to make those muscles stronger and more resilient, we need to challenge them. Preparing yourself mentally to perform these exercises is therefore a critical step.
It's important to note there's a difference between muscle soreness and pain when you train. The muscles of the back may get sore and you may feel tension, but that's a completely different feeling than pain. Knowing the distinction between the two is vital to your training success. If you have existing pain or any structural injury, it's best to see a medical professional before doing anything outlined in this article.
Step 1: Bulletproof Your Core
The first step to building a resilient low back is to train the core to do what it's supposed to—resist movement.
With these four exercises, you'll create a strong core that will provide a stable foundation for the bigger movements later on.
One of Stuart McGill's "Big Three" exercises, the Side Plank is great for strengthening the lateral muscles of the spine that help stabilize it. It's important to keep the elbow under the shoulder, and squeeze the glutes and abs to maintain good alignment.
Beginners can start by performing Side Planks for 10 seconds at a time (on each side) and then gradually build up from there.
Another one of McGill's Big Three, the Bird Dog hones in on the muscles of the back that run along each side of the spine. The glutes and hip stabilizers will also get involved in the fun.
To set up, start on your hands and knees. Next, simultaneously lift your left arm and right leg, keeping tension in your abs. Hold the extended position for a second or two, then return to start. Aim for 5 reps per side.
This movement will create full-body tension through your core, which will translate to the tension you're going to have to maintain during any other exercise. The Plank requires you to brace not only the abs, but also the legs, glutes and upper back. It really is a full-body exercise when performed the right way.
Start with 10 seconds at a time and build up from there. Remember we're aiming for full-body tension, not just getting into the position and hanging out.
Bracing and keeping a neutral spine is a huge part of eliminating back pain. Moving your arms and legs simultaneously while keeping your back from arching is the key to this exercise. While the Dead Bug might not look like much, taking the movement slow and concentrating on keeping the core braced and lower back flat on the ground will go a long way toward building a bulletproof core. Aim for 8-10 reps per set for 3 total sets.
Step 2: Build Strength, Endurance and Resiliency
The next step is to actually train the muscles of the back to work by strengthening them and building endurance. The best way to do that is with big compound movements.
This is the exercise that many people fear most when it comes to their backs. Any mention of a Deadlift has them running for the hills. But therein lies the problem. They're likely scared because they haven't learned to develop proper technique. When done correctly, the Deadlift is an amazing posterior chain exercise. Meaning it will help you create a strong and resilient back. And in the end, that's what will keep you out of pain.
Start with Rack Pulls or pulling off of blocks, then build up to performing Deadlifts from the floor. However, it is not vital to pull from the floor, as not everyone can or will. Find a movement that works for you and own it.
Good Mornings are another one of those "fearful" exercises, perhaps because they look like they have the potential to do a number on your back. But much like the Deadlift, Good Mornings willl do wonders to make your back stronger. Make sure you first master the hip hinge movement pattern before making Good Mornings a staple of your routine (that's a good idea for Deadlifts as well).
Hip Thrust/Glute Bridges
Glute strength plays a big part in how your back functions. Weak glutes will cause your back to take over a lot of the load in terms of stabilizing the pelvis and hips. When it comes to avoiding back pain, that's not what we're looking for. Hip Thrusts or Glute Bridges will activate those glutes and also make them stronger. These don't have to be heavy to be effective, either. You can start off by using nothing more than your body weight before progressing from there.
Sorenson Holds/Back Extension
The low back extensors fatigue quickly, which can lead to back pain and general back fatigue. When that fatigue sets in, form goes out the window. When you combine that with a movement like picking up something off the ground, that's when you've created a recipe for back pain. Using Sorenson Holds (shown at the end of the above video) will increase the endurance of the back muscles, and Back Extensions (shown during the first :45 seconds of the above video) will build their strength.
Start with 10-20 seconds of work and build up your endurance gradually. Aim to work up to 1-2 minutes at a time, but it may take you a long time to earn those progressions.
Using these exercises isn't a fool proof plan that guarantees you'll never get hurt. Life happens. You can however, prepare your body the best you can to avoid back pain. Having a back that is strong and resilient will make you a stronger, more efficient human and save you from winding up on the injury reserve.
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