FITNESS Exercise and back pain


Exericise, back to front

Personal Trainer
Paul O'Brien

I remember hearing the phrase ‘Put your back into it!’ quite a few times as a youngster. This quip means, figuratively, to apply a little more effort in the task undertaken. There is also a literal application. The back muscles form an integral part of the girdle of stabilising muscles around our mid-section. This ‘girdle of muscle’ is better known by the term ‘the core’.
Unfortunately, to this day, the core still means simply the abdominal muscles to a lot of people. The reason for this is simple – we can see those muscles easily in a mirror or by simply looking down at them. It takes a lot more effort to study those of the lower and mid back!
Weakness in the structure of the back is a leading cause of injury amongst people under the age of 45. A whopping 80 percent of us will also experience some form of lower back pain at some time in our lives. Even though only about 5 percent of us will go on to develop more chronic problems, that’s still an awful lot of pain….
The causes of lower back pain can be difficult to pinpoint. In general, however, there are four major causes: herniated disc (rupture of fibres surrounding the disc fluid), spondylolisthesis – (slipped disc), trauma injury to the lower back and degenerative disc disease.
Obviously, in terms of exercise, back pain can limit type of exercise one can perform. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that a lack of exercise is a risk factor for lower back problems. Other risks include carrying excess body weight, smoking and poor nutritional habits. From my experience as a trainer, I would add a lack of exercise for the back muscles to that list. Most people only work the abdominal muscles of their core while completely ignoring the lower back muscles. This leads to severe muscular imbalance, poor posture and is a recipe for lower back pain.
If you suffer from lower back pain, you should seek clearance from your doctor before starting an exercise programme. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist or to a particular trainer with specific exercises. A programme of daily stretches for your lower back is vital as a further measure. The key here is prevention or worsening of any condition. In general, you should also avoid any sudden twisting movements, any unsupported forward bending movements and exercises that involve raising both legs from the floor simultaneously.
Also, make sure you maintain excellent alignment and postural awareness; don’t tilt your head forward during exercise; include warm-up (ten minutes) and cool-down (five-mins) sessions; stretch after exercise; avoid hyper-extension of the lumbar spine during exercise or movement; and exercise to your pain-free range of motion. Finally, if exercise aggravates your lower back, stop straight away and seek assistance.

Paul O’Brien is a personal trainer and life coach based in Westport.