The ‘Big Three’ Exercises for Lower Back Pain


Once I’ve been sitting at my desk without moving for, oh, about five hours, my back starts to feel like it’s made of stone rather than bones, nerves, ligaments, and muscles. As almost every 9-5er knows, standing up, cracking your back, and performing some ’80s-style aerobic exercises for lower back pain all offer some temporary relief. But what you do at the gym matters, too, according to Stuart McGill, PhD, professor emeritus of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Think of your spine as the mast of ship and the muscles that surround it as the rigging, says Dr. McGill. “The mast has to have a bit of flexibility, but essentially must be held firm by rigging to prevent it toppling,” he tells Daily Mail. “Similarly, the spine needs strong muscles to hold it firm, so it can transmit energy from the shoulders and legs and minimize stresses that lead to pain.”

Years of research have led Dr. McGill to recommend the “big three” set of exercises for lower back pain (a trifecta, if you will) designed to stabilize the spine both during and after a workout. Instead of focusing on stretching or strength, his moves are targeted toward endurance. That’s because he found that most people experience lower back pain have poor movement, which tends to happen when you’re fatigued. By improving endurance, posture and form can be improved. “

True spine stability is achieved with a ‘balanced’ stiffening from the entire musculature, including the rectus abdominis and the abdominal wall, quadratus lumborum, latissimus dorsi and the back extensors of longissimus, iliocostalis and multifidus,” Dr. McGill tells Ace Fitness.

As complicated as the physiology behind the moves may be, these exercises for lower back pain are probably already familiar to you. It’s easy to learn the three moves that form the backbone of maintaining a healthy spine.

Kiss back pain goodbye with the “Big Three” exercises for lower back pain

1. The curl-up

Dr. McGill is no fan of sit-ups. Instead he prefers a simple curl-up. Around the 9:20 mark, Chloe De Winter demos how to do a typical curl-up. McGill’s version is slightly modified. Start by lying on your back with one leg straight and the other knee bent. Place your hands under your low back and crunch your head, shoulders, and neck off your back at the same time. Hold for 10 seconds and slowly lower back down.

Reps: Complete three sets. For the first set, perform eight reps. For the second, six. For the third, four. Make sure to do an even amount on each side.

2. The side bridge



The side bridge strengthens the muscles that keep your spine stable. Lie on one side with your knees bent and prop yourself up on one elbow. Place your free hand on your opposite shoulder. Lift your hips off the floor for 10 seconds. (If you want, you can straighten your legs so you’re in more of a side plank.)

Reps: Complete three sets. For the first set, perform eight reps. For the second, six. For the third, four. Make sure to do an even amount on each side.

3. The bird dog



Your spine remains still for this move, which focuses on strengthening the muscles that surround it. From your hands and knees, raise your left arm forward while kicking your right leg back. Make sure your body is as flat as possible from head to toe. Hold for 10 seconds.

Reps: Repeat the 10-second hold three times on each side.

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