Spinal instability can contribute to low back pain, but the "big three" exercises can help.
A strong core can stabilize your spine to help keep your lower back healthy and pain-free. The muscles and ligaments surrounding your spine can weaken with age or from an injury, which can make movements like twisting, stretching, lifting, and bending difficult.
"The lower back often has to compensate for this lack of mobility, which places greater stress and burden on its muscles," says Eric L'Italien, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Center.
People with back pain often fear movement, which can make their back stiff and their pain even worse. "Yet, a stable spine is also more flexible, so it can support a full range of natural movements," explains L'Italien. "And healthier movements reduce pressure on the low back and lower the risk of pain and injury."
Spine stability is achieved with a balanced approach to your entire core musculature. "This means you engage all the core muscles at once — from the abdominals to the whole back," says L'Italien.
This comes in handy when you make movements that require sudden strength and a broad range of motion, like lifting and carrying groceries and placing them on the counter or floor.
"Spine stability means your entire trunk is working together in rhythm, like a world-class symphony," says L'Italien. "If one thing is off, it can affect the entire structure."
So how do you get a stable spine?
L'Italien recommends the "big three" exercises developed by Dr. Stuart McGill, an expert in spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada. They are the curl-up, the side plank, and the bird-dog.
"These exercises engage all the important muscles needed to improve spine stability," says L'Italien.
Here's how to perform each of the big three. You should follow what's called a pyramid sequence: Start with five repetitions (reps) of each of the three exercises. Then do three reps of each, and finish by doing each exercise just once.
As you get more comfortable with the routine, you can increase the number of reps you start with for each exercise, but continue to follow the descending pattern.
Perform these exercises two or three days a week before your regular workout. "After a while, you can perform them daily," says L'Italien.
1. Lie on your back. Extend one leg straight out on the floor. Bend the knee of your other leg so your foot is flat on the floor.
2. Put your hands under your lower back to maintain the natural arch of your spine.
3. On an exhalation, lift your head, shoulders, and chest off the floor as though they were all connected. (Come off the floor just enough to feel tension in your muscles.) Don't bend your lower back, tuck your chin, or let your head tilt back.
4. Hold for 10 seconds and then slowly lower yourself down.
5. Complete five reps, then switch leg positions and repeat the sequence to complete the exercise.
1. Lie on your side with your upper body propped up on your arm, with your forearm on the floor and your elbow underneath your shoulder. Place your free hand of the top of your hip. Pull your feet back, so your knees are at a 90° angle.
2. Lift your hips off the floor so they are in line with the rest of your body, and hold for up to 10 seconds. Try to maintain a straight line from your head to your knees. Slowly lower your hips back down to the floor.
3. Repeat five times, then flip to your other side and repeat the sequence to complete the exercise.
Variation: For a challenge, straighten your legs instead of bending them.
1. Get down on the floor on your hands and knees.
2. Raise your left arm and extend it forward as far as possible while simultaneously lifting your right leg and extending it straight behind your body. Keep both the raised arm and leg parallel to the floor. Ensure your hips are aligned with your torso and not tilted to one side.
3. Hold for 10 seconds and then return to the starting position.
4. Repeat five times, then switch to the other arm and leg and repeat the sequence to complete the exercise.
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