Are you struggling with back pain from time to time? Maybe with radiation, maybe without. It could radiate from your lower back to your glutes or in your legs.
Or maybe you just want to build up a strong core to do great exercises. After all the core is the foundation of everything. In this guide I will show you the perfect core strengthening exercises – back pain will be history soon.
You might be feeling:
- A stiff back
- Soreness lower back region
- Burning/annoying pain that never really goes away
- Pain that sometime is worse than other times and you don’t know why
If that is you, most likely you have a weak core. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have weak abdominals. Your core is more than that.
You core exists out of:
- Lower back
- Abdominals (Rectus abdominus and your oblique’s)
- Glute muscles
- Intrinsic muscles that stabilize your spine (transverse abdominus and multifidus)
The last one is often overlooked. Maybe you have never heard of them before. Though these are the most important muscles you need to activate in order to get rid of your back pain. This guide will discuss how to activate the muscles the right way and give you core strengthening exercises for back pain. This is what I use most in my practice as a physiotherapist.
So you want to feel pain free again or you just want an iron core. You need a basic structure. A foundation to build upon.
Imagine building a house. If the ground on which the house is build is not completely straight but crooked but you do build the house on it anyway, that’s not going to be good. Imagine what happens over time. Same goes with your core. You need the right muscle activation to stabilize your back. I’m referring to your internal core muscles (transverse abdominus and multifidus). Then you need them to work together with the outer muscles, like the lower back (quadratus lumborum and the erector spinae), obliques and rectus abdominus (abdominals).
When the foundation is solid (inner core muscles), you can safely build up your core and it will last. Chances of getting low back pain decrease or the intensity you experience might decrease.
What often happens if you have back pain because your global muscles compensate for your intrinsic muscles. Because the intrinsic muscles are not activated properly and lack strength, the outer muscles take over.
The intrinsic muscles have a much higher endurance than your outer muscles
and are basically build to stabilizer your spine. Your spine needs stabilization. If the intrinsic muscles do not work properly, as smart as your body is, it will find out another way. It does this by letting the outer muscles stabilize your spine. The outer muscles are built for movement. Of course they have a secondary function of stabilizing your spine, but mostly they are their so you can do movements, like bending and extending your back.
When these muscles take over the function of the intrinsic muscles, they fatigue very quickly because they are not built to stabilizer your spine. They do not have an endurance like the intrinsic muscles. So they get overused. This causes pain and you enter a vicious circle.
If you don’t have back pain and you just want a good core, the same principles apply. If you master this, you are ahead of 98% of the competition. Just look around in your gym where they do exercises that involves your core (which is basically all movements). They lack the proper core strength and proper muscle activation and sooner or later they might hurt themselvers.
So what are the advantages of a good, solid core?
- Rarely experience back pain ever again
- Get instantly stronger in most exercises
- Get solid six pack abs (if you have low body fat)
Basically safe yourself a lot of trouble and experience some nice benefits. It only costs a little bit of effort. But if you ask me it’s more than worth it.
Make sure to consult your physical therapist first before attempting these exercises.
An easy test to see if you have some activation at all is the pelvic tilt. This means the ability to tilt your pelvic forward and backward (which primarily is done by the inner core muscles).
Lay on the floor or on a mat and see if you can flatten your lower back flat to the ground by compressing your abdominals slightly, like the following picture:
Try to slide your hand underneath your lower back. This should not be possible. If you can somehow slide your hand underneath your back, you know you are not activating the proper core muscles, like this picture:
My hand is able to slide underneath and as you can see I have an arch in my lower back.
Note: (A lot of people can’t do this simple exercise).
So now you know how the pelvic tilt works it’s time to put it into practice.
Core Strengthening Exercises
- Back extension (not like you know it, see detailed description below)
- Seated row
- Oblique machine/Rotation machine
- Dumbbell side bends
- Ab crunches on Bosu with ball
If you understand these exercises and you do them consistently for about 4 – 6 weeks, you will notice a huge difference.
The exercises the way I’m going to explain them to you allow you to gain back control over your intrinsic core muscles and let them work together with your outer muscles. This is what you want. Your central nervous system needs to adjust to this pattern and this takes some time. Also because this is strength training, it takes at least 4 weeks before you notice a significant difference.
Generally, before the first effects of strength training kick in is after about 4 weeks.
- Back extension
You are going to perform this exercise not the way you know it. You probably are used to just bouncing back and forth. Though not this time.
Start out in the basic beginning position with your hands crossed across your shoulders:
Now you start to slowly move down, but you start from the top of your vertebra (the neck), rolling vertebra after vertebra, all the way down to the last vertebra in your lower back. Start with your neck first, chin on your chest
Now your shoulders. Protract your shoulders (push them forward so you hollow your upper back)
Pull your belly in and bend your lower back all the way down
Go back up and start at the lower back. Maintain the hollow position you are in and roll up vertebra after vertebra. Lower back first, pull your shoulders backward second and after that your neck. Don’t over extend your neck at the end but go back to a neutral position.
Try to build up to 3 sets of 12 repetitions. Control the exercise.
- Seated Row
Don’t focus on the weight, but instead focus on your posture. Sit up as straight as you can with a natural spine position. For your feeling you must over- exaggerate. This will feel weird at first because you are not used to it.
Now throughout the movement you maintain this position without moving forward or backward. No change in posture should occur. Pull the weight towards you and back again:
3 sets of 12 repetitions. Don’t set the weight too low, but set it at a weight so you can maintain a steady core and so there is no need to compensate by getting momentum from your lower back.
- Oblique Machine
On this one you are going to sit up straight just like the back row machine.
With this exercise you target mainly your oblique’s (side abs). By having a straight posture during the whole exercise you force your central nervous system to let your oblique’s and intrinsic muscles work together. Which is what you want. 3 sets of 12 reps each side. Don’t grab a weight that’s too heavy. This is not about strength, it’s about the right muscle activation.
- Dumbbell Side Bends
Grab a weight not too heavy, stand up straight. Ideally in front of a mirror so you can see your performance and do it the right way. Then hold the weight in your right arm first and bend the right way. Don’t let your arm fall forward or backward. This causes a rotation in your lower back which is not what you want. Let the dumbbell move down your leg up until the height of your knee approximately.
Move back up straight and repeat both sides 12 x for 3 sets.
- Ab Crunches on Bosu with ball
Grab a ball or a Bosu ball and lay on it with your lower back.
Throw the ball in a trampoline or to someone else helping you, and catch it above your head. Go backward and all the way until you almost touch the ground. Almost, but not fully. This is a great exercise for isolating your abdominals.
Try playing with the weight of the ball you throw and ideally aim for 15 repetitions for 3 sets.
If you don’t have access to a trampoline or you can’t do it with someone else, you can throw it against the wall and catch it or hold the ball and go back and forth.
These complaints are very common and often times a weak core is a huge part of the problem. If you master this, let’s say after about 6 weeks, you should be experiencing some great results.
Also if you want to use this for sports, it’s a good way to start. If you are into the body weight training a good core is essential. Especially if you want to advance in bodyweight exercises and do some dragon flies, the planche, human flag, back lever, etc. A solid core is a must.