Lumbar Spine Fitness Guidelines
Janet injured her lower back while exercising in her local gym. She was taking a trip through her favorite “ab ciruit” when she felt a snap in her lumbar spine. The next day she was unable to stand up straight. Two weeks later, we met her in physical therapy for her initial evaluation. She was ready to return to her fitness program three weeks later. Janet was very concerned she may suffer another exercise induced back injury and requested some advice. These are the simple guidelines I give to physical therapy low back patients returning to exercise.
Mobilize the Thoracic Spine and Hips
Movement is supposed to happen at the thoracic spine and hips. Unfortunately, prolonged sitting, deconditioning, and poor training choices tends to restrict mobility in these areas. If you are unable to rotate and extend at the hips and thoracic spine, your brain will use other joints to make up for the deficit. Pushing extra rotation and extension forces into your lumbar spine is never a good thing. Dedicate some training time to improving thoracic spine rotation and hip extension / internal rotation range of motion. If you sit for a living, work on your mobility everyday.
Make the Lumbar Spine Stable
Most fitness clients believe that more lumbar spine movement is a good thing. They perform toe touches, back twists, and the many breeds of up and down dogs. Unfortunately, greater lumbar spine range of motion is positively correlated with a higher incidence of lower back pain. The incidence of low back pain escalates even further when we move those hypermobile lumbar spine segments against a resistance. What does keep lumbar spines healthy is high level of lumbar spine strength endurance. Can you hold the lumbar spine stable and prevent movement from occurring at the pelvis and five lumbar vertebrae. Your lumbar spine stays happy and healthy when you focus training efforts on planks, roll outs, crawls, carries, and Pallof press exercises. Avoid the sit ups, crunches, sidebends, toes to bar, and other assorted “ab” exercises that create lots lumbar spine motion.
Avoid Muscle Isolation Exercise Activities
The muscles that support the lumbar spine work together as part of a neurally connected team. Training activities that support better communication between the team members will create optimal performance. The neuroanatomy saying is “What fires together, wires together”. Ditch the “upper abs”, “lower abs” baloney and sprint away from anyone who trys to strap you into a machine in an effort to “isolate your obliques”.
On her discharge from therapy, Janet was unable to perform a single roll out and fatigue fairly quickly with a twelve pound suitcase carry. For the last three months, she has followed the guidelines and her progress has been excellent. Janet is currently performing a suitcase carry with fifty pounds and has worked up to ten full reps on an ab wheel roll out.
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
Finding Fitness With Lower Back Pain
The number of USA emergency room visits, pain medication orders, injections, imaging studies, and surgical interventions directed at lower back pain continue to rise. I frequently meet people who report their fitness efforts have been hampered by low back pain. I have five recommendations that can help fitness clients with lower back pain have more success in the gym.
#1 Do not exercise first thing in the morning: Ergonomic experts have found that many more industrial lower back injuries happen in the morning. The theory is that the discs in the lower back imbibe or gain fluid overnight and are more likely to deform with a physical challenge. Give your lower back one or two hours of walking around time before starting an exercise session.
#2 Isometric strengthening of the spinal stabilizers: The function of your “core” muscles is to limit movement of the lumbar spine and pelvis. Stop all crunches, toes to bar, sidebends, sit ups, seated twisting, and learn how to perform bird dogs, side hovers, Pallof press, planks, and carries. Compliance with this single hint would reduce USA expenditures on lower back pain dramatically.
#3 Enhance the function of your hip flexors and gluteal muscles: Please cease all the forward spine flexion, toe touching, spine twisting activities. Greater lumbar spine range of motion is associated with more–not less, lower back pain problems. Learn how to foam roll and mobilize the hip flexors and gluteal muscles. Prolonged sitting and most popular “cardio training” deadens these muscles. Properly functioning hip flexors and gluteal muscles keep the pelvis stable and take stress off the lower back. Reawakening dormant gluteals and hip flexors is the magic that resolves long term lower back pain.
#4 Focus on single leg strength training: Ditch the front loaded hip hinges–deadlifts, cleans, snatch, and drop the loaded squats. Swear off the lower lumbar deranging leg press. Reduce spinal compression and train the legs, one at a time. Single leg training reveals the right / left side movement asymmetries that drive lower back pain. Resolving these asymmetries and sparing the spine goes a long way to abolishing back pain. You will need some guidance on exercise selection and execution- this brings me to #5.
#5 Get some help: Exercise is the most powerful medication on the planet. Nothing else comes close. Take the proper dose of appropriate training and the results will be amazing. Take the wrong dose of an inappropriate activity and the results can be devastating. This is especially true for people with a history of lower back pain. Find a qualified physical therapist to guide you through your fitness journey. One way or the other, you are going to spend time and money on your health. Proactive spending is always cheaper and more beneficial than reactive spending.
Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS
Learn how to keep your spinal stabilizers strong by performing side planks. Mike O’Hara explains this in his article, “Learning to Lean”, and includes video demonstration and explanation of the importance keeping your stabilizers strong to stand up to the demands of daily life. It’s time for another Fenton Fitness Love Your Jeans Challenge–see page 3 for more information. In his article, “The Periodization of Nutrition”, Jeff Tirrell gives tips on optimizing dietary intake.