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Simple Habit to Help Keep Your Lower Back Strong and Healthy
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Oct 30, 2008
If you have what some people call a balky back - one that seems to get tight and sore on a regular basis without any apparent cause - you might benefit from adopting the following simple habit that can significantly improve the strength of your lower back and core:
As you walk, focus on keeping your gluts (bum muscles) and abs strong.
This doesn't mean that you need to exert a lot of energy flexing the muscles in your bum and abdominal areas while you go about your daily activities. All that is required is for you to consciously use your gluteal and abdominal muscles as you stand, walk, jog, and run.
Addendum on November 9, 2008: A number of readers have asked for clarification on what it means to consciously use one's gluteal and abdominal muscles. This means to actually feel these areas contracting as you go about your daily activites.
If you're not sure what it feels like for your gluteal muscles to contract while you're walking, try walking backwards for several steps - this simple exercise should allow you to feel your gluteal muscles contracting with each step.
If you do this properly, your gait should feel strong and purposeful, and you'll likely be more aware of the muscles that surround your hip and lower back areas.
Why is this habit usually helpful to people who experience chronic, intermittent lower back pain?
The joints in your pelvis and lower back are surrounded by two main types of tissues: ligaments and muscles.
Your ligaments wrap tightly around your joints, and their primary purpose is to keep your joints stable i.e. your ligaments, more than any other tissue, help prevent joint dislocations.
Your muscles also surround your joints, but over top of the ligaments that are wrapped right up against your joints. So the order from inside out is: joints (bones), ligaments, then muscles. And if you want to take it right to the surface, after muscles comes a layer of fascia, and then your skin.
Like your ligaments, your muscles also help to keep your joints stable, but the primary purpose of your muscles is to move your joints.
Over time, factors - like lack of exercise, being overweight, unresolved scar tissue that affects gait, and pregnancy - can cause the muscles and ligaments that surround your lower back and pelvic regions to become weak. As your muscles become weak, your ligaments are asked to work even harder to keep your joints stable, but because your muscles and ligaments tend to get weak together, it's natural for your ligaments begin to fail (become injured), which is typically how intermittent joint problems begin to surface.
When the joints in your lower back and pelvic regions are unstable due to weak muscles and ligaments, the unstable joints move more than they should, which inevitably results in injury to the joint surfaces. Injury leads to pain and inflammation, which often leads to less physical activity and further weakening of your muscles and ligaments. You can see how this can become a cycle of pain and further weakening that can spiral until you wake up one morning wondering how you became old and stiff so quickly.
Injured ligaments can heal and strengthen over time, but in some cases, like frank dislocations, the involved joints may never be as stable as they were before they were injured.
This is why training your muscles to be active and strong while you go about your daily activities can be an extremely effective way of strengthening your lower back and core. Your muscles have much greater capacity to be strengthened and reconditioned than your ligaments do, so by consciously using your abdominal and gluteal muscles every time you stand, walk, jog, or run, you provide significant support to your lower back and pelvic regions and the joints contained therein.
Another reason why focusing on your abs and gluts while you walk is good for your back has to do with a concept called reciprocal inhibition.
Consider the muscles that surround your lower trunk area. Your abdominal muscles cover most of the front of your lower trunk area, while your lower back muscles cover most of the back of your lower trunk area.
When it comes to bending your trunk forward and backward, your abdominal and lower back muscles perform opposite actions; your abdominal muscles flex (curl forward) your trunk, while your lower back muscles extend (bend back) your trunk.
Your nervous system is designed to allow both your abs and lower back muscles to perform these actions with the least amount of opposing strain. For example, when your abdominal muscles curl your trunk forward, your nervous system automatically relaxes your lower back muscles, which allows your abs to curl your trunk forward with minimal resistance. And vice versa when your lower back muscles extend your trunk backward.
This nervous system mechanism of relaxing an opposing muscle is called reciprocal inhibition.
When you keep your abs strong while you walk, the muscles of your lower back receive a steady signal from your nervous system to relax to some degree. And when you keep your gluts strong as you walk, your hip flexors (the muscles that line the front of your hips) also receive a steady signal from your nervous system to relax and lengthen.
Having strong abs, strong gluts, and relaxed and lengthened lower back muscles and hip flexors are the four main requirements for a strong and healthy lower back and core.
As you apply the suggestion to keep your abs and gluts strong as you stand, walk, jog, and run, take note of how your lower back and the front of your hips feel - you'll probably feel your lower back muscles and hip flexors being lengthened to some degree, especially your hip flexors.
That's it. Really simple tip, but it's been highly effective for me and a number of my clients.
Please share this post with family or friends in your life who have chronic lower back trouble. Thank you.
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