Millions of Americans routinely suffer from back pain. This problem increases with age as bone mass diminishes, muscles stiffen and discs begin to lose fluid and flexibility. If you’re overweight and mostly sedentary, you’re at even greater risk of developing back problems.
The good news: relief for your achy back may be as simple as focusing on your core, the muscles that wrap around your abdomen and support your spine. In fact, a back-bolstering core workout can benefit everyone from world-class athletes to those who are mostly sedentary.
Here are my top five core exercises to tone your middle and keep your back feeling good. Try doing these two to three times a week:
1. Planks. Start in a push up position, bend your arms and support your body with your forearms. Keep your hips, legs and torso in a straight line while tightening your abdominal and glute muscles. But watch your form. Instead of overcompensating with your back muscles and letting your gut sag, draw your core muscles in at the level of your belly button and hold that position as long as you can.
2. Bird dog. Get on all fours, making sure your spine is neutral (not arching up or down). Then, engage your core muscles and slowly reach forward with your right arm as you extend your left leg behind you. Hold for a breath and then slowly return your limbs to the starting position. Repeat the exercise on the other side. The beauty of this simple stretch is you have to engage nearly all of your core’s stabilizer muscles to stay balanced.
3. Mad cat. Position yourself with your hands and knees on the floor. Imagine there’s a string through your belly button pulling you up to the ceiling and slowly curl your back toward the ceiling while tucking your chin slightly like an angry cat. Hold the position with a deep inhale, then tighten your abs, drop your chest toward the floor and lift your head slightly. Repeat.
4. Crunches. Crunches are one of the most common exercises to strengthen and engage your core muscles, especially those coveted six-pack muscles. To make the move simpler, prop your calves on a chair or coffee table. Then, cross your arms over your chest and lift your shoulders off the floor while keeping your lower back flat. Too intense? Hold your arms out in front of you rather than crossing them over your chest. That makes the exercise easier on your stomach and, most importantly, your back.
5. Bridges. Lie on your back on with knees bent 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor. Engage the muscles of the deep core and move into a bridge position by lifting your bottom off the floor. Instead of forcing your belly up by arching your back, try to maintain the natural curve in your lower spine. Comfortable? Lift your left foot off the floor and extend your left leg to maintain a straight line through your left heel. Return your foot to the floor and repeat with your right leg.
To truly strengthen your core muscles and prevent (or minimize) back pain, it’s important to engage your core muscles even when you’re not exercising. If you sit on the job, get on your feet and take regular breaks. Bend at the knees not at the waist. Engage your core muscles when you’re lifting things. And in your day-to-day life, remember posture is key.
Christina Chapski, Ed.D., AT, ATC, is the Director of Athletic Training and Community Outreach at Henry Ford Health. Read more of Christina's articles.