Building a Robust Back

Building a Robust Back

The idea of maintaining an upright posture while standing, sitting or walking is as intuitive as it is visually appealing. Aligning your spine to most efficiently accept the force of gravity is a good idea. But being able to reverse that spinal alignment while squatting down to pick up your kid or pick something off the floor is just as important. That fact is if we rigidly hold any position, correct posture or not, for an extended amount of time, our neuromuscular adaptation to that position will have some negative consequences. The standing desk solution is a real world example of this concept. The trade off between standing for 8 hours vs. sitting for 8 hours is just an exchange of one set of neuromuscular problems for another, the relative posture in those positions is irrelevant. The goal should be movement adaptability. The starting point to movement adaptability is a robust back.

A robust back is one that can maintain a position or move through multiple positions, pain free, in static and dynamic environments. Imagine a work day that requires you to sit for 8-10 hours per day. After work, can you transition to walking or standing for the next 30 minutes to an hour without back pain? When we maintain a prolonged sitting position, wether slouched or with perfect upright posture the muscles around our hips and spine will adapt in length and tone, to that position. Perfect sitting position cannot change this fact. When you then stand or walk your back has to be able to tolerate the stress that comes with that change in position. An adaptable, robust back can move out of one posture and into another pain free.

Improving the robustness of your back is a matter of realizing a modest increase in its available range of motion and necessary stability. In practice an adaptable back is able to bend forward and backward without pain, discomfort or trepidation. Add spinal rotation and side bending without incident and your back is on its way to being adaptable to your daily rigors. But does it have strength with those motions? Can you bend forward to pick up something off the floor that weighs 8.6lbs (gallon of milk)? Can you put a stack of plates away above your head? Can you do either of those while twisting at the waist? All of these motions violate some of the cardinal rules of proper posture, asymmetrical spinal positioning, not bending at the knees and/or facing the object you want to lift. But shouldn’t your back have the capacity to twist, turn, lift, and bend when it is just your body weight or when manipulating relatively light objects?

Achieving an adaptable back is possible, even for someone that has a history of back pain. To start, you should begin with body weight movements only. If your back gets stiff from running, biking, lifting weights, or prolonged sitting and standing, you do not need to add intensity to your movement. To narrow down the infinite choices of body weight movements, you will need to be mindful of where your movement limitations are most acute. Does walking hurt your back? You most likely have difficulty with moving your low back into extension. Does sitting hurt your back? The you are having trouble moving your back into flexion. If turning your back to either side is painful, then you have found your limitation.

As a starting point for developing a robust back, I like to suggest basic human movements that are simple and effective. Consider starting with a standard cat/camel, but with two notable changes. Begin on your hands and knees, hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart. Begin by gently dropping your belly towards the floor. If this causes pain, back out of the range a bit until it is pain-free. First notable change; As you drop you belly towards the floor, drop your chin towards your chest and take a long inhale through your nose. Then reverse the position of your back by rounding it upwards towards the ceiling. Second notable change; As you round your back towards the ceiling, gently lift your chin up and fully exhale through your nose, using your stomach muscles to help exhale. Try repeating this motion for 5 minutes, focusing on lengthening your inhale and exhale while increasing your range of motion. Once this can be done comfortably, we need to add side to side motion into the equation.

Begin in the same cat/camel position. This time, when you have dropped your belly towards the floor, slowly inhale while gently bending to one side then the other. Think of bringing your right shoulder and right hip closer together, then repeat on the other side. When you have finished the inhale, begin your exhale and slowly round your back, repeating the side-bend motion to both sides with your back rounded towards the ceiling. Start this progression slow and don’t push into any pain. Once you can confidently move into the side-bend positions with and extended and flexed spine, it is time to pull it all together. In the cat/camel position drop your belly and side-bend to the left, staying in the side-bend position round your back towards the ceiling and then side bend to the right. Then drop your belly again and side-bend left. Now you have done a full rotation of your spine. Practice this rotation for a few minutes in each direction on a daily basis.

As always, I am happy to discuss this and other strategies for helping you get out of pain and back to your active lifestyle. Please feel free to contact me at derecksteffe@returntosportphysio.com for a free phone or in-person consultation.