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When you’re suffering with back pain, often the recommendation is to perform exercises in order to strengthen the muscles in your back. This can often seem like unhelpful advice as, you’ll know if you’ve ever been to the gym, it takes time and patience to build muscle and strength. Unlike treatment or painkillers which would help to take the pain away probably immediately, strengthening can be very time consuming and take weeks. Maybe you’ve tried exercises in the past and made you worse or they just didn’t help, often the key is seeking treatment in the first instance to relieve pain if the problem is very acute and is flaring, or having patience with building strength and be more consistent with the exercises. Today we’re going to talk about the most effective way to strengthen your back and core.

Before you start with any exercises to strengthen your back or core, you need to first learn how to activate your core muscles. It’s something you hear endlessly in exercise classes but if you’ve never been taught how to activate your core, you might be wondering why this would be necessary. Well the answer is actually really important.

How Do You Activate Your Core?

Without activating your core muscles, it’s likely you might use your back or another part of your body, to assist in performing the exercise. This is not the best way to perform exercises, but if you activate your core you’ll be able to strengthen the core and perform the exercises with correct form and target them specifically. Your abdominal muscles have various compartments, the core muscle you need to be engaging to benefit your back health is the transverse-abdominus muscle – the one behind the six-pack muscle (the rectus-abdominus). The best exercise we teach patients to perform is called a Vacuum. To perform it, sit or lie in a comfortable position and take a deep breath in. As you do this, notice your belly should inflate like a balloon. Now as you take a deep breath out, draw the belly in towards the spine. Hold it there for a few seconds and then relax. Repeat the exercise until you can safely and almost unconsciously activate the muscle. You should be able to breathe at the same time and even hold a conversation. Learning this skill so you can perform it on cue can give you a great baseline for performing and progressing with other exercises.

What Exercises Do We Recommend To Strengthen The Core?

To help with progressing the strength of your core, we often prescribe our patients exercises known as Bird Dog or Dead Bugs. To perform a bird dog, you’ll need to be kneeling on all fours with your weight balanced in the middle, hands should be underneath the shoulders and legs hip-width apart. Activate your core and simultaneously lift your right arm and left leg keeping your core and entire middle section stable. To do the exercise correctly, you’ll need to keep your hips parallel to the floor with no rotation occurring in the hips as you lift. Hold for a couple of seconds, and gently lower back to the starting position and repeat with the opposite side. The exercise helps to further strengthen your core and helps to stabilise your lower back as well.

To perform Dead Bugs, you’ll need to lie on your back on the floor. Hold your arms out towards the ceiling, bring your legs up too but bent at the knee at a 90 degree angle. This is the starting position for the exercise, but you’ll also need to make sure that your back is completely flat against the floor – there shouldn’t be any space to put a hand between your back and the floor. Engage your core and slowly, with controlled movement, lower your right arm and left leg at the same time. Exhale as you lower until the arm and leg are just above the floor, or as far as you can without raising your back off the floor. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat using your opposite arm and leg. If lowering both an arm and a leg is difficult, try instead just lowering one arm or one leg, or both arms at first, and see if you can complete the exercise without arching your back at all. If you’re struggling to do the exercise without separating your back from the floor, you’ll need to adjust the exercise slightly to accommodate for your fitness level.

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What Exercises Should Be Avoided If You Have Back Pain?

If you research exercises to strengthen your core, you may find ones that are commonly associated with the core – such as leg raises and sit ups. These are called flexion based exercises as they involve forward bending of the spine, and can actually cause an increased amount of pressure on the spine. When you bend forwards, the pressure on the discs increases exponentially, which can be a trigger for a new episode of back pain if you’ve previously been prone to recurring back injuries. This is why we would recommend to avoid certain poses in yoga as they can be unhelpful. Often forward bending movements are encouraged in yoga classes to enhance flexibility – during that motion it can be relieving at the deepest part of the fold as it will open out the hole the nerve travels through, despite it putting extra pressure on your lower back as you bend over. As the hole opens out, you may experience some relief from symptoms as the pressure on the nerve is released, but as soon as you revert back to your original position this closes back up, symptoms return, and you may make the problem worse in the long run as you’re putting extra pressure on the lower back by performing that movement.

Now you know how you can strengthen your back and core muscles by using these very simple exercises, and by knowing which exercises to avoid you’ll be able to work on those weaker areas in the best and safest way possible. If you start to incorporate these exercises, you should start to experience relief, but if your problem is particularly acute or it’s been a longstanding issue you may need to visit your local osteopath or chiropractor to figure out exactly what the problem is and have some treatment to help relieve the pain. If you’d like to find out more about our approach to treating back pain and the advanced treatment technologies we offer, visit our website at themayfairclinic.com or email us at info@themayfairclinic.com. To book an appointment with us, call 0203 947 3222. Remember to share this article if you know someone suffering with back pain.