Back pain is a common problem among Americans. In fact, low back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Ann Heckler, fitness instructor at ProMedica Wildwood Athletic Club, says that our lower back often gets attention because it’s prone to injury. It takes on more of a load, whether we’re picking something up or just sitting a long time. But the upper back can be weak or injured, too, contributing to an aching back and neck, bad posture, slouching, and tension.
Posture may play a big part. If the spine has been injured or simply strained, poor posture can worsen ongoing back discomfort and pain. “Avoiding poor posture and cultivating good structural alignment of the spine in general is key to alleviating back pain,” explains Heckler. “Proper postural alignment is basically having your ears over the center of your shoulders and your shoulders squared over your hips. Once you create this good posture, your pain might be alleviated. If not, it is possible that the discs in your spine need to be cared for by a doctor.”
As part of your core, strengthening your back is fundamental to giving your body the support it needs. “Everything in the body is related; if one part’s off, the other part’s off,” says Heckler. “If one part of your back is tight, it’s going to affect the rest of your body.”
While back strengthening is important for injury prevention, you don’t necessarily need to shy away from it if you’ve already injured your back. However, you will want to take certain precautions.
“Talk with your doctor before trying to strengthen your back, especially if you have an injury,” recommends Heckler. “If you have an existing injury, such as a bulging disc, it could make it a lot worse.”
Once your doctor gives you the green light, Heckler recommends sticking with therapeutic, mild back bends if you have a back condition or injury. Pain isn’t always a good indicator of whether or not you’re overdoing it. If you’re really mobile, certain stretches or movements may even feel good but could be damaging for your back.
“Go into back work mindfully, slowly and using your breath. If you find yourself holding your breath, you’ll want to come out of the movement so you aren’t bending or stretching as deeply,” advises Heckler.
If you’re looking to stretch and strengthen your back, Heckler recommends the following three movements:
This movement is one of Heckler’s “go to” moves to start her yoga classes. It gets blood flowing to warm up the spine and is also good for balance, flexibility and strength. The movement of tucking in the tailbone and then extending it back can also help you determine where your pelvis should be aligned when neutral, such as when you’re sitting or standing. This move can be done 8-10 times or fewer if you’re feeling fatigued.
Prone Back Extension
For this movement, you can choose to lie face down on a floor mat, or to come up on all fours on the mat. Inhale and lift one arm and the opposite leg. Exhale as you return your arm and leg to the original position. Repeat 5-10 times or when your breath because over-labored. Repeat with the other arm and leg.
Lie face down and bring your hands to your chest. Lift your head and chest, using the strength of your core and back muscles. Try not to use your arm muscles. Hold for at least three complete breaths, more if your breath can remain steady without gasping.