Part two of a four-part series on getting rid of back pain for good
This month we are focusing on strengthening our backs. This is a part of the body that often gets neglected. We experience much of the world from the front, and therefore we have a higher awareness of the function and form of our front body. Back muscles can also be challenging to isolate when doing strength exercises, and often other muscle groups step in to take over even when our aim is to strengthen the back. It is important to strengthen the back because the muscles of the back stabilize the spine, but also because the complementary muscles of the core tend to be stronger and the unequal balance of strength can lead to posture instability and pain. Give these exercises a try, and see how much better your back feels with some focused strength training!
This exercise focuses on strengthening your upper back. Sit on a stool, exercise ball, the floor, or backward on a chair so you don’t have anything behind you to get in the way. Bring your right hand behind your head with your right elbow pointing directly to the side. Roll your shoulders down your back and focus on maintaining a straight spine. Now twist back while thinking about pulling your right shoulder blade toward your left hip. You won’t really be twisting down toward your back hip, but visualizing that movement helps activate all the muscles along your back. Be sure to really think about using those muscles between your shoulder blades as this movement can be simply a mobilization exercise if you don’t focus on really utilizing the right muscles. Once you’ve gotten the movement figured out, contract back into the twist on an exhale and release to neutral on an inhale. Do five sets each side.
Need a bit more support during the exercise? If you are facing backward on the chair, you can hold onto to the back of the chair with your opposite hand for stability. You can also do this exercise in water or lying on your stomach. If you do decide to try it on your stomach, turn your head the direction you are twisting to avoid discomfort in the neck and make sure you aren’t using the muscles on the top of the shoulders that connect to the neck to pull you around but truly those muscles between the shoulder blades. If you’d like a challenge, try the twist on all fours in a tabletop position. It will add the benefit of balance and core stability. Word to the wise: stretch your wrists before and keep a blanket handy for under your knees!
Cactus heart opener
While seated in your chair and facing the front this time with your feet flat on the floor and spine erect, extend your elbows out to the side with your hands pointed up at a ninety-degree angle. This is the “cactus” pose. Now bring your attention to the muscles between your shoulder blades, and shorten that distance by activating those muscles and pulling your shoulder blades together. You should feel similar muscles activating as your seated twist, but it may be easier to isolate the right muscles and leave your upper trapezius out of the mix. This time, inhale as you extend your heart forward and elbows back; exhale as you release back to neutral. Do this one 10 times if you can. If it’s too strong of a stretch in your shoulders, bring your hands behind your head like you did in the first exercise. Feel free to try this one standing or in water as well.
If you’d like an added challenge that targets the same muscles, lay on your stomach with your hands on the ground in front of your shoulders. Press your upper body up with your hands, leaving your elbows bent. This is an extended cobra pose for anyone who practices yoga. From this position, feeling that great stretch across your front and the muscle activation along your back, try bringing your heart space forward, drawing your shoulder blades together and releasing a few times. You can even bring yourself up to your fingertips for more of a challenge. If you feel any pain in your lower back, bend your elbows more and bring your upper body closer to the ground.
This one says it all in the title! Lay your body flat on the ground with your arms extended in front of you. You may want a soft mat underneath you to take pressure off the ribcage and hip bones. Lift your arms and legs up the same time, really feeling that activation in your back. Lower and relax. Make sure you keep your head in a neutral position between your extended arms when you rise up to avoid straining the neck. Check as you do this exercise if you feel your glutes turn on, and if you don’t, turn them on! Our glutes are often disengaged and they are so important for keeping our hips stable and our back working the way it should!
If you didn’t feel your glutes before, now you’re going to. Come to a standing position with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Make sure your knees are tracking over your toes as you bend your knees. This will send your tailbone back so your spine is straight and your tailbone isn’t tucking under. You will find your back is in a slight forward diagonal. Check that your glutes are active and you have a straight line from your tailbone to the top of your head. This will require a bit of effort through the upper back to avoid hunching forward or opening through the chest.
To really get strengthening through the back, try your arms in a few different positions. Feel the difference in your body between arms directly in front of you, out to the side in cactus, or even extended over your head in the same diagonal line as your back. If you need to reduce the challenge, hold on to a wall or chair in front of you. Squat and straighten five times, really taking your time and focusing on form. If you want an additional challenge, come to a squat and raise and lower an inch from your bent position, pulsating with a small range of motion deep in your squat. This will wake up your legs and glutes for sure, offering your back the strong foundation it needs to maintain healthy posture during the day.
These exercises can be integrated into the stretching you are already doing. Try a couple of the stretches before strengthening to mobilize your body. Follow this with a few of the strengthener, and finish up with another stretch to cool down. You have several options so you can mix up your exercises each day while still working on the same goal. For the overachievers out there, really focus on engaging your core as you move through these exercises. We will be working on the core next month, but truly healthy movement involves the integration of all muscle groups working together. Practice daily and you will be thrilled with the results!