Understanding all about bending and back strengthening exercises will liberate you from crippledom with your back.
Erector spinae are the super-strong guy ropes either side of your spine. They work in a day-to-day way to hold you upright, but they automatically over-clench if your back is painful to protect the problem part (protective spasm) and this should be fleeting. If you are too cautious with your back these long back become increasingly rigid and grabbingly painful to bend.
Getting erector spinae to switch off will make your back feel better. Bending normally is the best way to achieve this.
One of the truisms of backs is that over-activity of erector spinae causes reflex under-activity of the deep spinal muscles multifidus (see above). The latter control the individual spinal segments, stopping them slipping forward as the spine bends. Multifidus also keeps the segments stable so they don’t jump about on sudden movement, say when you sneeze, or cough, or lurch at a tennis ball.
When your back is bad you get reflex inhibition of multifidus which feeds back to make erector spinae more dominant. The back feels rigid but at the same time it feels internally weak and too fragile to bend. This is a common conundrum with an acute flare-up; being too frightened to bend makes matters worse. It also makes you internally weaker, and as a reflex your back more superficially rigid. You enter a downward spiral intensifies.
Protracted multifidus under-activity can lead to ‘instability’ of a spinal segment (see my 5 stages of spinal breakdown, Chapter 6 in The Back Sufferers’ Bible). This is especially likely to happen if the disc at the problem level is dehydrated and lacks pressure, thus making it like an under-inflated car tyre: more susceptible to shearing forward as the spinal column tips into a bend.
In getting your back strong and back to bending unselfconsciously again, you often need to deliberately wake up the switched off multifidus muscles. You do this by lying on the floor and doing a gentle left to right twisting action of your pelvis, making the spine undulate like a snake across the floor. In so doing, you break through the veneer of holding stiffness caused by the long spinal muscles in spasm. The video above shows you exactly how.
The floppy rotating of the pelvis cannot be done too gently. But, if your back has been rigid for years (which is common) this seemingly simple exercise will be unbelievably difficult to do. You find it wretchedly clunky and anything but easy as you seem to move everything but your pelvis – your shoulder blades and your legs, even your feet – to get some semblance of the action happening.
Doing it for 10 seconds is a long time as the back will tire - which seems strange for such a facile exercise. Doing it little and often is the way to go. You can also do it lying on either side or on your back.
If you want to specifically strengthen multifidus you can use a Roman Chair (or hang supported off a table). Most gym enthusiasts do it wrongly, flipping back straight instead of unfurling, with the head coming up last. Worse still is to do this exercise with a sand-bag behind the head and head up first. This invokes frenetic erector spinae activity and inhibits multifidus. Segmental instability is common amongst gym junkies and weightlifters for this reason.
The best you can possibly do is use your back naturally and normally, making it do life’s everyday things, such as getting the detergent from under the sink, or picking up the kid’s toys. The deeper the bend, the better.
Incidentally, the exercises shown above are the most unhelpful exercise if you have a bad back. They are known as 'back extension exercises'. In years gone by they were the main form of treatment given to all back sufferers. The action is brought about by the powerful spinal extensor muscles ‘erector spinae’ which extend from the base of the skull to the top of the pelvis. They are almost never weak and you almost NEVER need to do this exercise. You have license to stop immediately.
Read more on Lower Back Strengthening Exercises
Read more about Exercises for Tall People with Back Pain
Read more on Upper Back Strengthening Exercises
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