“It is estimated that 70-90% of people suffer from back problems at some point in their lives.” – Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007-08.
“Up to 80% of Australians experience back pain and 10% have significant disability as a result.” – The Medical Journal of Australia, 2009.
“Back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide.” – Global Burden of Disease, 2010.
“Back pain is one of the most common medical problems, affecting 8 out of 10 people at some point during their lives.” – National Institute of Health, 2012.
Modern humans are doing something wrong here. I tried looking for statistics of human back pain before the agricultural revolution and unfortunately came back with zero results. What I can imagine, is something like this;
Here’s a ridiculous thought; if we evolved from apes, maybe our spines are not cut out for standing upright for long periods of time. If you look at most animals, they are quadruped with backs flexed over. The animals with the ability to go biped (such as monkeys, meerkats and bears), rarely stay upright for long and their strongest positions remain in quadruped. Maybe if meerkats were to consistently stand upright and sit at desks all day they might slip their discs.
Sitting for long periods of time does not seem to agree with our biomechanics. Shear and compressive forces acting through the spine over time in a seated position, in addition to the lack of mobility we gain over the years from sedentary living, create weak links in our spine. If we already start with weak links, poor posture and an unconditioned body and then lift a heavy weight, receive an impact or aim to produce power in sport (think of throwing an opponent in mixed martial arts) with our back in a compromised position, we can meet some tough times.
A “functional” way to train includes the development of submaximal strength with the back in various degrees of flexion and rotation, and this is very important for sport since the environment is generally not controllable (impacts, opponents). However, it is key to learn how to lift properly first. Lifting with good form involves keeping a neutral spine when going for max effort lifts and stacking the joints in their most biomechanically efficient way.
Poor posture means higher levels of shear stress on the spine. When posture is efficient (open chest, natural lumbar curve, tight core, shoulders pulled back, drive power from the hips) then we’re able to handle higher amounts of compressive force.
Manage Tight Muscles
Check whether these muscles are over tight and need soft tissue work and stretching;
Iliopsoas – aggravated with lots of sitting, leg raises, sit-ups, kicking, kneeing, surfing pop-ups, sprinting, stair climbing.
Paraspinals – aggravated with sudden spinal overload, repetitive movement with poor technique, hunched posture, tight abdominal muscles, and lots of sitting.
Rectus Abdominis – aggravated with too many crunches (especially without balanced lower back/glutes/hamstring training), over-exercising.
Glutes – aggravated with prolonged sitting, sleeping in fetal position with knees pulled up, sitting on your wallet, standing for long periods on one leg.
Piriformis – aggravated with distance running, prolonged tension (such as driving a car), sitting with one foot underneath you, walking with duck feet (toes out), sitting too much.
Quadratus Lumborum – structural imbalances (one leg longer, uneven pelvis), habitual leaning to one side, slouching, always sleeping on one side, rotating the torso more to one side more than others in sport.
Hamstrings – prolonged sitting, bed rest, sprint overtraining, weak glutes.
Lower Back Strength & Conditioning
1. Sumo Deadlift
A key exercise anyone wanting strong legs, glutes and backs. A key exercise to train for strong glutes and back muscles. With Sumo Deadlift you should be feeling it mainly through the glutes and hamstrings, not predominantly in the lower back. Sumo has the best mechanical advantage for heavy lifting because of this.
2. Box Squat
Box squats are great because you cannot overshoot on depth and they allow you to sit back into your hips more than a usual squat without falling on your ass. Keep your legs very wide, spread your knees out as much as your feet, and fold at your hip to sit back toward the box or bench. Sit back to a point at shin vertical or beyond shin vertical (knees go behind the ankles) which engages the glutes and hamstrings far more than a usual squat since it takes loading off the quads. Contact the bench for about a second and then jump/leg curl your way up again. Perform this explosively. I like to keep the neck in a neutral position, with my chin tucked in, lengthening the back of my neck and therefore reducing the chance of tensing up my muscles at the back of my head.
3. Good Mornings
With this exercise, your aim is to keep your spine in a neutral position, core braced and bend at your hip to sit back without changing the position of your spine (this means not dropping your chest or rounding out your lower back).
4. Band Goodmornings (high repetitions)
Place a small power band over your shoulders and under your feet so that you have created a rectangle around your body with the band. Bend over with a rounded spine and extend to an upright position with an arched back. These can be done relatively fast with high reps (start with 30reps and work up). Band Goodmornings are great for strength endurance, strengthening spinal ligaments and working your back in a rounded position, which is bound to happen in sport and daily life. Do some with an element of rotation also, reaching your chest to your opposite knee on the eccentric action.
5. Single Leg Romanian Deadlift (Drinking Bird Exercise)
Stand on I leg and hold either dumbbells in each hand, a dumbbell in the opposite hand, or a barbell with weight. Sit the hips back with the knee just slightly bent throughout the movement. Aim to keep your spine in a neutral position from start to end, bracing the core and glutes to maintain the spine’s integrity.
6. Single Leg Deadlift
Same technique as above but start with a loaded bar from the floor (or an unloaded bar from blocks).
7. Pull Throughs – Straight Legs
Having bent legs with work more the glutes, having straight legs will work more the lower back. Face away from the cable machine (or band attached to something secure) with the cable (or band) held between your legs. Bend over so that your back rounds, then straighten your back so that you have a neutral spine and full hip extension.
8. Middle & Lower Trapezius Strengthening
An upper back strengthening exercise to benefit desk workers, shoulder or back pain sufferers, athletes and everyone in between. The middle and lower trapezius muscles are typically underused and weak in the majority of clients I see today. Strong upper back muscles improve posture which improves body function, sports performance and reduces strain on the spine and joints. Sitting on a bench, keep your back straight and lean forward from your hips. Keep your chest lifted as your reach your arms forward with your palms turned up and circle around to the back of your hips. Reverse this motion to return to the start position and repeat.
That’s a start for someone with a relatively healthy back, plays sport at any level and does not have any spinal pathologies. Before you start with specific back strengthening exercises, ensure your glutes and hamstrings are working decently first. Seeking the guidance of an exercise professional is always a good idea.
Final Note: Keep Moving
Mobility training helps improve active flexibility in tight areas.
Resistance training helps build strength and endurance (higher reps) and will help activate weak or inhibited areas.
But before you randomly start lifting, running, twisting and jumping:
- Do necessary corrective exercises
- Groove appropriate movement patterns
- Build full body joint mobility/stability
- Increase core endurance
- Build full body strength
- Develop speed, power, and agility
Always seek out professional exercise instruction before attempting any of the exercises above.