How to Protect Your Low Back

Since May of 2009 I’ve been fighting some low back pain due to a non-workout related injury. The problem is down at my SI joint, and fortunately, thanks to Active Release Techniques plus the following exercises, I’ve brought it under control. But it wasn’t until I started being consistent and serious with my rehabilitation that significant improvements were made. I now do the following circuit almost every time I workout.

But before I share that with you, there are a few things you need to know. First, if you haven’t read Dr. Stuart McGill’s book, “The Ultimate Guide to Low Back Fitness and Performance”, you should. I consider this MANDATORY for all personal trainers. You’re not taking your job seriously if you haven’t read it.

In this book, you’ll discover decade’s worth of research done by Dr. McGill in his lab up at the University of Waterloo. In fact, I once drove my trusty Nissan Maxima from Toronto to Waterloo one day just to meet and have lunch with Dr. McGill. I still remember his story of how he was working with an NBA player and they were having the athlete do sprints followed by planks and side planks, to increase the difficulty of the exercises and to replicate the postural demands of sport-specific exhaustion. Dr. McGill is also commonly called to be an expert witness in worker’s compensation trials.

But one of the most relevant pieces of information Dr. McGill covers in his book are his standards for the Plank and Side Plank. According to his data, your risk of a low back injury decreases significantly if you can do a Plank with perfect form for 2 minutes and a Side Plank (for each side) for 90 seconds. Next time you go to the gym, test yourself, or even do that right now. If any of your clients have back pain, consider testing them on these two exercises. I guarantee that if you add these exercises to their programs, they will improve their endurance and reduce their back pain, as Dr. McGill has shown that an increase in abdominal wall musculature endurance is associated with less back pain. Again, it’s that simple.

NOTE: This article is not a substitution for professional low-back pain treatment or rehabilitation. If you – or your client – has back pain, first see a doctor and get referred to the best health professional in your area to treat the low-back pain. Thank you.

Embarrassingly, back in May of 2009, I noticed that I had let my performance in these two exercises slip, and I was shocked at not being able to meet these standards. So I started taking these seriously again, and do them consistently as part of my warm-up. This has been a key component of getting my back healthy again. Of course, since they are not the most exciting exercises in the world, you’ll want to go through the TT programs at www.TTmembers.com to locate more challenging and even dynamic versions of these exercises.

In addition to adding these movements to your training, you must eliminate all spinal flexion from your programs, as outlined by the Turbulence Training Certification seminar. Say goodbye to situps, crunches, and anything performed with a rounded low back. This includes picking dumbbells up off of the floor. That’s where people get hurt, when they forget that the “no rounded back” rule also applies to real life activities (that’s why so many folks get hurt bending over to pick up a pencil).

The golden rules of safe ab and low back training are:

1)      Brace the abs

2)      Never round the low back

3)      Get mobility from the upper back (thoracic spine)

lying hamstring stretchWhile you want to be stiff and stable at the lumbar spine region, the opposite is true for the upper back (i.e. from between your shoulder blades and up). For example, when doing an exercise like a cable chop, the rotation occurs in the thoracic spine, not at the lumbar spine (waist level).

Finally, flexibility is another controversial component of low back health. Many experts claim, without thinking critically, that tight hamstrings are a major cause of low back pain. But the answer is not so simple in this case. Sure you should help your clients get adequate flexibility in their hamstrings, but they do not need to become hyper-flexible. While this may only be true for myself, I’ve found that the following photo demonstrates the appropriate level of hamstring flexibility for myself. If my hamstrings are tighter, I’ll be in trouble, but it doesn’t take much work to maintain this level of flexibility:

Now let’s take a look at the lower-body warm-up I have been using to eliminate my back pain and increase my abdominal endurance. The warm-up goes like this:

Eccentric Bodyweight Squat – 10 seconds with 4 second eccentric

Bird Dog or Bird Dog with Leg Abduction – 5 reps with a 10 second hold or 15 reps

Plank or Side Plank – 60-120 seconds per hold

Glute Squeeze – 30-45 second hold

Prisoner Forward Lunges – 8 reps per side

Leg Swings – 20 to 30 reps per side

Psoas Stretch – 20 seconds per side

NOTE: I also mix in upper body warm-up exercises. See Issue #1 (April 2011).

Here are the exercises, including the common and not-so-common moves I use.

Eccentric Bodyweight Squat

  • Stand with your feet just greater than shoulder-width apart.
  • Start the movement at the hip joint. Push your hips backward and “sit back into a chair”. Make your hips go back as far as possible.
  • Squat as deep as possible, but keep your low back tensed in a neutral position.
  • Don’t let your lower back become rounded.
  • Push with your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps to return to the start position.

 

 

Bird Dog

  • Kneel on a mat and place your hands on the mat under your shoulders. You should be on “all fours”. Brace your abs.
  • Raise your right hand and left leg simultaneously while keeping your abs braced.
  • Point your right arm straight out from your shoulder and your left leg straight out from your hip. Your pelvis should not rotate (if someone placed a ball in the small of your back, it shouldn’t have fallen off). Your back should be flat like a table.
  • Hold for 3-5 seconds and then slowly lower without rotating your pelvis.

 

 

 

Bird Dog Abduction

  • Kneel on a mat and place your hands on the mat under your shoulders. You should be on “all fours”. Brace your abs.
  • Raise your right hand and left leg simultaneously while keeping your abs braced.
  • Point your right arm straight out from your shoulder and your left leg straight out from your hip. Your pelvis should not rotate (if someone placed a ball in the small of your back, it shouldn’t have fallen off). Your back should be flat like a table.
  • At this point, move your raised leg out to the side as far as possible – this movement is called “abduction” – meaning “moving away from the body”.
  • Slowly return to the start position and alternate sides.

 

 

Plank

  • Lie on your stomach on a mat.
  • Raise your body in a straight line and rest your bodyweight on your elbows and toes so that your body hovers over the mat.
  • Keep your back straight and your hips up. Hold (brace) your abs tight. Contract them as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach, but breath normally.
  • Hold this position for the recommended amount of time.

 

 

 

Side Plank

  • Lie on a mat on your right side.
  • Support your bodyweight with your knees and on your right elbow.
  • Raise your body in a straight line so that your body hovers over the mat.
  • Keep your back straight and your hips up. Hold your abs tight. Contract them as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach, but breath normally.
  • Hold this position for the recommended amount of time. Switch sides.

 

 

Glute Squeeze

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent. Push through your heels and squeeze your butt to raise up into the top of a hip extension movement.
  • Squeeze your butt and hold that position for the recommended time.
  • Do all the work with your glutes (butt muscles)…don’t use your low back.

 



Leg Swings

  • Stand with your feet hip width apart and hold on to something for balance.
  • Take the inside leg and swing it back behind you and then swing it straight out in front of you. This will stretch your hamstring so do it gently.
  • Continue to swing your leg faster and higher with each repetition.
  • Do all reps for one side then switch.

 


Psoas Stretch

  • Kneel on your right knee and place your left foot 1-2 feet ahead of your right knee.
  • You should be in a straight line (similar to the bottom position in a lunge).
  • Slowly lean forward until you feel a moderate stretch in the hip flexor area (the front side of leg at the hip level). Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and then switch sides.

protet lower back with six pack abs workouts

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