When it comes to physical activity, the lower back is one of the most important — yet overlooked — areas of the body. It’s involved in almost all our major movements (and non-movements) throughout the day, whether we’re sitting at our desk at work, lifting weights at the gym or helping a friend move into a new apartment. Unfortunately, the lower back is a tough region to work out. There isn’t the universally known equivalent of a biceps curl or a bench press to keep it functioning in tip-top form, so many simply ignore it and hope for the best.
Statistics compiled on the American Chiropractic Association website strongly suggest that this isn’t the best recourse: According to the Global Burden of Disease 2010 study, lower-back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and experts say that up to 80 percent of people will experience a back problem at some point in their life.
Translation: The time to strengthen your lower back is now. So, whether you strained your back helping a friend carry a couch up the stairs, are trying to compensate for years of slumping in your office chair, or simply want to nip that potential future pain in the bud, here’s a three-step plan to bring strength back to your lower back — without going to the gym to do it.
Take Your Mom’s Advice – Sit Up Straight
The first rule of strengthening your lower back: Don’t focus on your lower back. “That would be a mistake,” says Sean Fortune, a personal trainer and running coach from New York City. “Strengthening the lower back goes hand in hand with core, so I would recommend a more holistic approach where you’re working the entire core.” That begins with focusing on proper posture. “Often, when we sit or stand, we’re slouching or leaning instead of standing upright,” says Fortune. “The more you pay attention to your posture, the better it becomes over time — and that in and of itself is a way of strengthening your lower back.” The National Institutes of Health website offers some handy (if obvious) tips on how to improve your posture, including these: Sit in a chair with stellar lumbar support and sleep on your side to avoid curvature of the spine.
Run, Forrest, Run!
“You may not think it, but certain aerobic activities can be a big help when it comes to strengthening the lower back,” says Fortune. Swimming is at the top of his list, because it works the core and the entire back, and the buoyancy of the water alleviates stress on the joints. But of course, unless you have your own pool and live in a warm climate, you’ll need to head to a gym to get your freestyle and butterfly on year-round. As an alternative, Fortune recommends running. “Studies have shown that out of all the aerobic exercises, your core is stimulated most when you run,” he says. “Your core takes on a lot of stress [when you run], and it makes you stronger — as long as you don’t overdo it and get injured.” Fortune is mindful to emphasize this last point, since running is a high-impact activity — one that puts direct force on the body. “If you’re not conditioned and you try to run too much,” he says, “there’s a whole host of things that can be problematic.” So start slow, with short distances. More importantly, listen to your body.
Get To The Core Of The Matter
While focusing on posture and adding some sensible aerobic activity to your fitness regimen will certainly help strengthen this trouble region, the surest routes to a robust lower back are workouts that target your core muscles — both back and front. These workouts include Pilates, yoga and various strength-training exercises that can be performed in the comfort of your home.
According to Susan Smith Burns, a Power Pilates instructor from Bethesda, Maryland, the emphasis in Pilates is on working the muscles of the stomach, back, thighs and glutes to better support the spine. “This improves posture and alignment, meaning that we’re better able to withstand the constant downward pull of gravity,” says Burns. “Poor alignment leads to compression, which leads to deterioration of our discs (the shock absorbers for our vertebrae) and a narrowing of the space available for our nerves to exit the spinal column.” In other words, poor alignment causes lower-back pain; the regular practice of Pilates helps relieve it.
An October 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that the same is true of thorough stretching regimens such as yoga, which employs moves that both flex and stretch the body’s core muscles — including those of the lower back. If you’re not familiar enough with yoga or Pilates to do the moves on your own, Fortune suggests a couple of functional, straightforward exercises that can be done virtually anywhere to get you started on the road to a ripped, pain-free back. The first is the plank, an isometric exercise that involves holding a difficult static position for an extended period of time. A second exercise involves just one piece of equipment: a yoga ball. “Place the ball where your lower abdomen and pelvis is, and do back extensions — where you lower your back and then raise it up into a plank.”
With the right combination of proper posture, judicious aerobic exercise and a little planking, your core and lower back will be stronger before you know it.