Most of us have experienced debilitating back pain in our lives that have hampered our ability to train for our respective sports or even to carry on with our normal activities of daily living. Low back pain is a leading cause for a lot of athletes to stop training and doing what they love.
My first encounter with low back pain happened after an Easter egg hunt at a local park when I was in high school. I saw that an egg was placed on top of a gazebo and thought to myself, "I could totally get that." I proceeded to climb onto a BBQ grill and made the leap to grab the egg. I did indeed achieve my goal but got clotheslined by the side of the gazebo, falling about nine feet straight down onto my right hip.
For many years after that incident, I attempted to rehab my back with variations of sit-ups and crunches, thinking that a "strong core" would help. It didn't. (McGill SM, 1995) Finally, I changed my training style. I am now free of back pain and feeling stronger than ever.
So what changed?
Trunk stability. The "core" of our body is comprised of numerous muscles that span multiple joints and levels of our spine, much like an orchestra that requires several musicians to coordinate together to create a symphony. When you train your core, exercises like sit-ups and crunches may not be addressing all the muscles that are being required to help provide stability to the core. A strong core does not just mean having a ripped 6-pack, but it requires an athlete to have the ability to have numerous muscles co-contract together to help improve performance and reduce the risk of injuries.
When the core muscles fail to meet the stability demands during a movement, parts of the spine are overloaded with forces, leading to an increased risk of injury and potentially decreased performance. (Kibler WB, et al, 2006) The idea of a radio tower as a spine's structure is presented by Dr. Stuart McGill, a leading researcher in the mechanics of low back injuries. Dr. McGill notes that a radio tower must be supported by guy wires from multiple angles to help keep it upright, much like our connective tissues and muscles that must work together to help facilitate bracing, twisting, extension, and flexion.
Isometric training helps enhance muscular endurance and coordination. (Lee BC, et al, 2015) Research has found that isometric exercises are far superior when compared to dynamic strengthening in enhancing spinal stiffness and stability, making them ideal not only for rehabilitation but for athletic performance also. When every muscle surrounding the spine can co-contract together, it creates a natural weightlifting belt.
Here are four simple, yet effective exercises you can try now:
- Place forearms on the floor with elbows aligned below shoulders and arms parallel to your body
- Push into the floor with your toes and squeeze your glutes to stabilize your body
- Hold the plank position for as long as you can comfortably without compromising your form
- Try seeing if you can complete a 30-second plank
2) Side Plank
- Start on your side with your feet together and one forearm below your shoulder
- Engage your core and lift your hips until your body make a straight line from head to feet
- Hold the position without letting your hips drop. Repeat on the other side
- Try seeing if you can complete a 30-second side plank
3) Bird Dog
- Begin on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips
- Keeping your back and pelvis stable, reach your right arm forward and left leg back
- Try not to let your pelvis and body rock side-to-side during the movement
- Return to the starting position and complete multiple repetitions, then switch with the opposite arm and leg
- Try seeing if you can complete a set of 10 repetitions on each side
4) Isometric Banded Step Out with Press
- Get a band or cable anchored below shoulder height
- While standing perpendicular to the anchor and holding the handle with both hands, press your arms forward away from your chest until your elbows are fully straight
- Step out as you build tension and hold your position, keeping your hips and shoulders squared facing forward
- Repeat on the other side
- Try holding an isometric banded step out with a press for a 30-second hold on each side
Isometric Banded Step Out with Press
Chris Wong is a physical therapist from the Los Angeles area. He has worked with the USA Volleyball and USA Weightlifting National teams. He is currently working with elite amateur and professional combat athletes. Chris can be found on Instagram @chrisdwong.
- Kibler WB, Press J, Sciascia A. The role of core stability in athletic function. Sports Med. 2006;36(3):89-98.
- Lee BC, McGill SM. Effect of long-term isometric training on core/torso stiffness. JSCR. 2015;29(6):1515-1526.
- McGill SM. The mechanics of torso flexion; sit-ups and standing dynamic flexion maneuvers. Clinical Biomechanics. 1995;184-192.