The muscles of your back support your upper-body weight, enable you to move, and protect the spinal structures from harm. While the muscles must maintain a certain degree of flexibility, they also need strength and endurance. Strength is the ability to lift a very heavy object one time, and endurance is the ability to lift lighter objects many times. For example, when you lift a spare tire out of your trunk, you require a great deal of power for just a few seconds; this is strength. But if you spill a bag of potatoes in your trunk and have to stay bent over as you retrieve them, you need a prolonged, sustained expenditure of energy; this is endurance.
The muscles around your spine need to maintain both strength and endurance to perform their functions properly. The less strength and endurance your muscles have, the greater the risk of strain or injury, and in the case of back muscles, this injury could involve the structures and tissues that the muscles support and protect -- bones, joints, disks, and nerves. Keep your strength and endurance up so that you won't let your back down.
Try a Curl-Up
Your stomach muscles may be your back's best friend. They wrap three quarters of the way around your low back, and when combined with your back muscles, which complete the loop around your low back, they provide support to all sides of your spine like guy wires supporting a tower. If the wires on one side of the tower become loose, the tower will lean toward the wires that are still tight. This is essentially what happens to the spine when the stomach muscles lose their strength. Because they attach to both the ribs and the pelvis, when they weaken, they lengthen as the stomach is pulled down and out by gravity. This lengthening ultimately ends up causing a pot belly, or beer belly, appearance, and an exaggerated curve develops in the low back. The excess curve, in turn, compresses the facet joints, which scream with pain with even simple activities. You can maintain better posture, a better overall appearance, and a healthier back by strengthening your stomach muscles.
The best exercise that the beginner can do to strengthen stomach muscles is the curl-up. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Hold your hands together between your thighs and gently lift your head and upper body only until your shoulder blades are off of the ground. (A curl-up is not a sit-up, so don't bring your body all the way up.) Then, return to the starting position on the floor. Move slowly so your muscles get a good strength workout on the way up and on the way down. Taking it slowly also helps to prevent you from pulling anything. Start with 5 to 10 lifts, or repetitions, and over the course of a few weeks, try to progress to 25 to 30 repetitions without stopping. Use good technique, don't get sloppy, and don't forget to breathe normally.
Strengthen Your Upper Back
There are many smaller muscles in the upper back, between the shoulder blades, that also need strengthening. For this exercise, stand with one foot in front of the other and take a small can of soup in each hand. Bend your knees and allow your upper body to bend forward at the hips. With your elbows bent, hold the cans together in front of your belly button. Keeping your head up, slowly lift your hands toward the ceiling, leading with your elbows. As your hands are moving toward the ceiling, gently squeeze your shoulder blades together. Stop the movement when your upper arms are parallel with the floor. Return to the starting position and repeat 10 to 15 times.
Strengthen the Postural Muscles
Certain muscles around the spine play more of a role in maintaining good posture than others. Strengthening these muscles will give you better posture without much effort. You will have trained them to do the job on their own so that you won't have to consciously think about your posture.
To condition these muscles, lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your heels up next to your buttocks. Rest your arms at your sides with the backs of your hands touching the floor and your palms up. Gently press and hold the small of your back against the floor by tightening your stomach muscles. Without your hands, arms, shoulders, shoulder blades, spine, or head losing contact with the floor, slowly slide your hands and arms away from the sides of the body. Move your arms slowly so that you can monitor whether you are maintaining contact with the floor. Your goal is to get your hands and arms outstretched over your head without any of the body parts mentioned leaving the floor at any time.
This exercise can be harder to do than it sounds. Weak and tight muscles make it very difficult to complete this exercise without losing contact with the floor. If this happens to you, stop the exercise at the position where you lost contact and your body tightened up, and hold that position for about five seconds. Whatever you do, do not force your body into an awkward or straining position. Slowly bring your hands and arms back to the starting position following the same technique. Take a deep breath and start again. Repeat the exercise three to five times.
Once you can easily move your hands over your head without losing contact with the floor, try the exercise standing against a wall. Place your feet about six inches from the wall with your knees and hips only slightly bent. Follow the same technique, but this time, don't lose contact with the wall.
Strengthen Your Lower Back
Finally, it's time to strengthen the muscles that are mainly responsible for supporting your spine -- your lower back muscles. These muscles are involved in sitting, standing, walking, pushing, pulling, lifting, and carrying; back muscles work all day. In fact, you really cannot move at all without using these muscles.
The strength exercise for your low back is much like the curl-up, only upside down. Lie down on your stomach with your arms at your sides and your forehead resting on the ground. Start with your head, and slowly lift your upper body off of the floor as far as you comfortably can without straining yourself. Then, slowly lower your chest back to the floor and repeat 5 to 10 times. As you progress, see if you can do 15 to 20 consecutive lifts using good technique. Remember to breathe normally.
Use the Assisted Squat
Many of the exercises already described prepare your body to perform more demanding exercises. Squatting is a demanding exercise, requiring many muscles to work together. Learning to squat correctly is very important, because you can use the squat technique to lift heavy objects without straining your back. The assisted squat will train your muscles to perform this maneuver correctly and build strength in some of the key muscle groups.
Straddle the threshold of a doorway with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and with your weight on the balls of your feet. Grasp the doorjamb with both hands at about chest level. Slowly lower your body toward the floor by bending your knees and hips and letting your buttocks stick out. Don't just let yourself drop toward the floor; go slowly to prevent injury and maximize the workout. When the tops of your thighs are parallel with the floor, stop and slowly return to the starting position.
When performing the exercise, remember to keep your head up, shoulders back, and spine erect. Let your arms support much of your weight; this minimizes the stress placed on the hips and knees and makes the correct positioning easier to maintain. Initially, repeat the exercise 5 to 10 times, and try to build your strength until you can perform 20 to 25 consecutively. Remember to use good technique, because learning good positioning and posture is part of the reason for this exercise.
If this motion hurts your knees, see if not going down as far prevents the discomfort. The depth of the bend is not the most important aspect. If the pain continues, though, stop the exercise, and discuss your knee concerns with your physician.
Probably the most common reason why people injure their backs is that they pulled a muscle while trying to lift a heavy object. In the next section, we will show you how to lift heavy objects.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.