When it comes to strengthening your core to protect your low back from injury, you have a range of options. The variety of equipment available in your health club provides an even wider range of choices.
Just watch out for these three potential low back stressors.
Sit ups or curl ups
Sit ups, curl ups and roll ups are supposed strengthen your stomach muscles – the muscles you need to protect your low back.
The problem is that sit-ups overwork the superficial rectus abdominis and don’t tap the core support power of the oblique and transverse muscles. Sit-ups can even backfire because they place extra stress on the intervertebral discs.
Your alternative? The plank pose and its variants.
Here’s a picture:
Hold the pose for 30 seconds or more. Once you’ve developed the strength to maintain the pose with good form for more than 90 seconds, progress to a more challenging plank pose variant.
Or try this abdominal exercise: Lie on your back and simply lift both arms all the way over your head. Make sure that your lower ribs don’t flare out as you do it. You have to engage your abdominals as your arms lift in order to control the alignment between your ribcage and pelvis.
Hold for 30 seconds. You can make the exercise more challenging by lifting one foot about 3 inches off the floor. Need an even harder challenge? Hold a 5-10 pound weight in your hands as you lift them overhead. No matter which version of the exercise you try, the important feature is keeping your trunk alignment stable by engaging your deeper abdominal muscles.
Here are a few pictures that may help make this exercise clearer.
This guy is performing the exercise incorrectly. Note that his lower ribs are flaring out. He’s not using his abdominals properly to stabilize his trunk.
She’s using a better pattern of trunk alignment. The position of her legs, with the knees bent, is less challenging than if her legs were extended straight out.
Here’s a more difficult variation:
Don’t try this until you’re sure you’re ready for an advanced version.
Side-bending the trunk in the standing position while holding weights in both hands
I’ve seen many people performing this exercise in the gym with the intention of strengthening the muscles that side-bend the spine. Good idea in theory.
The potential drawback is that holding weights in your hands creates additional pressure on your intervertebral discs. Then, if you bend to the side, all that extra pressure is focused on the just one side of the disc, hitting it where it’s most vulnerable to rupture.
Your alternative: Perform a similar standing side-bending exercise using cables, focusing on only one side at a time. With cables, your muscles still have to contract in order to side-bend your trunk. But there’s no vertical compression load, thus sparing your discs.
Here’s a picture:
Dead lifts target the spinal extensor muscles of your lower back. They’re important muscles that need strengthening. Unfortunately, it’s a challenge to maintain proper alignment while performing a dead lift. If your spinal alignment isn’t ideal, you’re setting yourself up for intervertebral disc damage.
Your alternative: Lie face down on a bench with your legs and lower pelvis hanging down, ankles crossed. Hold on to the sides of the bench to keep your trunk stable and lift your legs and pelvis until your low back is horizontally aligned. Then lower slowly. Repeat 8-12 times.
These pictures show the starting and ending positions for the exercise.