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Six Pack Back

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

As we get older, most of us eventually trade in our washboard abs for “wash tub” abs. Coincidentally, as we get older, we have a greater tendency to develop back problems. As it turns out, it’s not such a coincidence. Along with the back muscles, the abdominal muscles play a major part in helping to move, support, and stabilize the back. We therefore must look at a much more comprehensive picture than just the back when working to treat and prevent back pain.

The back is designed to make three types of movements – flexion (bending forward), extension (bending backward), and rotation (twisting). During the course of our day, we put our backs through a whirlwind combination routine of these three moves. Loading a dishwasher requires flexion followed by extension. Trimming hedges requires flexion and rotation. Looking behind ourselves in a mirror to decide if this pair of pants is really a good idea requires extension and rotation. When executing each of these moves, the back muscles and abdominal muscles must coordinate and cooperate to achieve the common goal of movement.

Conversely, the abdominal muscles are involved in supporting and stabilizing the back even when it’s not moving – meaning the abdominal muscles are central to good posture. This includes time spent standing, sitting, walking, jogging, etc. Let’s take a moment to check your posture now. Sit up straight if you’re not already (be honest, I won’t tell). If you’re truly sitting up straight, your ears, shoulders, and hips will be aligned, and you should feel a small amount of tension in your abs. Now tighten your abs a little more. Did you feel your back straighten out a fraction further? This is the most natural, healthy position for your back to be in, and a strong set of abdominal muscles is key to maintaining proper posture.

Of course it does no good to strengthen the abdominal muscles while ignoring the back muscles themselves. This leads to an imbalance of strength and is a sure recipe for back pain. Instead, these two muscle groups need equal effort and attention. “Core strength” is a buzz term that is used frequently in the fitness industry, and for good reason – a strong core means a stable back, increased endurance (due to increased efficiency during movement), and fewer injuries.

You don’t have to be a body builder to get a stronger core. There are many easy exercises you can sprinkle into your day that will give you increased strength and stability in your abdominal and back muscles. Push-ups and sit-ups are the obvious choices, but you can also do the posture exercise we discussed earlier. By engaging your abs when sitting properly, you will notice that it becomes easier to maintain good posture as your core grows stronger. You can also trade in your recliner for an exercise ball when watching TV; simply by sitting on the ball, you force your core muscles to work to stabilize and balance you (bonus: this will work your buttock and thigh muscles, as well). Or why not play Superman with your grandson? While lying on your stomach, extend your arms out in front of you and simultaneously lift your feet and arms off the ground. This engages your core muscles in addition to your buttocks. Hold this position for a few seconds, then relax and repeat several times. As you become stronger, you can increase the length and repetitions of your “flights” (the cape is optional).

We will never be 19 again (how many of us would really want to be?), and while we don’t really need to fight our way back to the six pack abs of our youth, maintaining good core strength and stability is essential in preventing back pain, as well as a host of other injuries. Add a few simple exercises to your daily routine, and you may be surprised at the results. Keep moving, my friends!

Don’t let back pain keep you down. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Back Pain Assessment!