We don’t tend to think about our lower back until it starts to hurt. That should change, however, because a weak lower back suggests a weak core. One of the most significant steps we can take to prevent lower back pain or injury is to focus on strengthening the mid-line and to think about working from the core first.
One of the leaders in spinal health, Stuart McGill, professor of Spine Biomechanics from the University of Waterloo, believes there are three fundamental movements/exercises that help strengthen the core and protect the lower back.
This is a great movement to warm up the spine. Start on all fours — wrists under shoulders and knees under hips — exhale and bring your belly toward your spine as you round toward the ceiling. As you inhale, arch the back, lift the head and tailbone to the ceiling, and let the belly relax. You want the whole spine to work through this movement. If you’re starting in flexion (cat position), make sure your lower (lumbar) then middle (thoracic) and finally upper (cervical) all are moving. On the way through extension (cow position), start the movement at the cervical spine and work down. Do this exercise seven to eight times to warm up your spine.
This exercise is the new “sit-up” and the whole idea behind it is to strengthen your abdominals without compromising your lower back. To perform it, lie on your back with your arms and legs extended. Place the hands under the arch of your lower back to preserve the curve of the spine. Bend the left leg (the foot is on the ground; the right leg remains extended in front of you). Lift your head and chest off the ground to engage your core and breathe deeply. Hold for 5-10 seconds then lower down. Perform 8-10 reps and then switch legs.
The Side Plank
This movement is great for creating stability throughout the spine by strengthening the lateral abdominals. Start laying on your side. Your feet are together and the bottom arm is bent (elbow in line with your shoulder). Press into the ground with the forearm and contract the core as you raise your hips up until your body is in a straight line. Hold for 5-10 seconds (don’t let the hips drop) and then switch sides.
These exercises can be performed three times a week or more — research has shown the more you do them the better. More importantly, not only do they prevent back pain but they also work to rehab injuries in this area, too. Next time you are in the gym try them out and add them to your daily routine. Having a strong, balanced and stable core will make your day-to-day life that much easier. It might help you reach a couple of PRs, too.
Broder McNeill is a coach and co-owner at Alchemy CrossFit.