What’s the BEST Strengthening Exercise for your Lower Back?
This week’s myth-busters’ question was:
Which of the following exercises, when performed regularly (and correctly) has the greatest potential to strengthen the low back and prevent episodes of low back pain?
C. Abdominal Crunch
Thanks again for all of the responses. Here’s what we think…
Although bulletproofing your lower back is more complicated than performing a single exercise, the Quadruped Birddog is arguably the best exercise to use both in recovering from back injury/pain, and to prevent recurrent low back pain (LBP). To understand why this is the preferred exercise, here’s a little primer on mechanical stress and exercise.
It’s MOSTLY about Tolerances and Thresholds.
The ability to achieve pain-free function is based on two concepts, how well your body tolerates mechanical stress, and the threshold at which your structures fail under a load (weight) or over time.
There are 4 main types of mechanical stress that the spine has to manage as we move.
Bending (forward, backward, side-to-side)
Compression (think gravity pushing you down)
Shear or Sliding (think shifting forward, backwards or side-to-side as if two cans stacked on one another)
You can think of tolerances and thresholds of and for mechanical stress similar to how you would a screaming child in the movie theater. As the frequency or intensity of the screaming increases, there would come a point at which you would either ask the usher to speak with the mother/father, or you would remove yourself from the situation. Moreover, we each have a threshold at which we will take action in this situation. If you remain in an escalating situation for long enough without taking action you’d likely boil over. Your body responds in the same way with injury.
In cases of LBP, an individual is commonly found to be intolerant of one or more of these mechanical stresses. As the frequency of exposure and/or intensity of that particular stress increases your body starts to talk to you gently. When you breach the threshold at which the structures involved fail you’ve basically boiled over.
When someone is in treatment, it is the objective of the therapist to determine which type of stress the individual is unable to manage, and to incorporate specific drills to help improve that tolerance. In fitness, our aim is to increase an individual’s tolerance of all of the above stresses strategically and to gradually raise the threshold in each area. Regardless of the arena, it’s important to remember to select activities that allow you to remain below the threshold at which those particular stresses become intolerance and progressively increase intensity as the exercises help to raise that threshold.
Why is the Birddog is the BEST choice?
There are 5 main reasons this exercise wins out:
1. It’s easier to facilitate a neutral pelvis and spinal alignment in the Quadruped (hands and knees) position than in prone (lying flat on the ground). It is widely agreed that most back and core strengthening exercises are best performed with a concern for neutral spinal alignment.
2. It’s easier to teach someone to brace (tighten their core muscles), and breathe in Quadruped than in prone.
3. The compressive load on the spine can be better managed in Quadruped, which offers more options for regressing or progressing the exercise with regard for the individual’s threshold. Exercises are progressed by increasing or decrease the load (or resistance) used. In this case, the closer the arms and legs (which represent the resistance) are to your body’s center of mass (COM) the easier the exercise. You are capable of keeping the arms and legs much closer to your COM in Quadruped compared to prone.
4. It simultaneously strengthens the anterior core (abdominal muscles), and hip muscles, which are often found to be weak in those with LBP.
5. Most important, the Birddog has been shown to best facilitate the multifidus muscles compared to other back strengthening exercises. The multifidus muscles, which are the local stabilizers of the spine, are frequently determined to be weak in those who suffer chronic LBP.
The multifidus muscles are known to recruit at intensities less than 40% of Maximum Voluntary Contraction (100%). The ability to better manipulate leverages in the quadruped birddog allow us to work below this threshold more easily than in prone (face-down lying) exercises (see point #3)
Proper Execution is Crucial
Executing the birddog correctly can be a challenge. If done without concern for details, progress and effectiveness are inhibited. There are two common faults that we see when people execute the birddog.
1. Too much range of motion / hyperextending the lower back.
2. Weight shifting (a sign of poor hip stability, which is necessary to maintain the neutral lumbar spine position during this exercise)
To perform the Birddog correct, start with the most basic form.
Set-up: Hands under shoulders, Hips above knees, Lumbar spine neutral, High Total Body Tension.
To prep, take a deep abdominal breath and brace your core (tighten your abdominals, lower back, and hips). Maintain that tension throughout.
Level 1: Raise only 1 limb off the ground enough to slide a piece of paper underneath. (begin with the arm, then leg) Progress to lifting the opposing limbs simultaneously in the same manner. Hold each lift for 5 to 10 seconds. When you can perform 10 repetitions perfectly (i.e. without losing neutral spine alignment, and without any weight shifting), you may progress to Level 2.
Level 2: Use a Glide Disc under 1 foot and slide the leg back slowly; add the opposite arm once you’ve mastered the leg only. This allows you to progress the load or resistance (i.e. weight of your limbs) more easily.
Level 3: Elevate the leg off the ground attempting to bring the arm and leg into horizontal alignment with the torso. This must be done without hyperextending the lumbar spine (i.e. do not dip the lower back). NOTE: the horizontal alignment may vary based on the individual (limb/torso lengths) and his/her mobility or flexibility.
Progression #4: Add external resistance. A band works great for this particular exercise. You can also incorporate hand and/or ankle weights.
1. Don’t rush it.
2. Try to create as much tension in this movement as possible.
You’ll get a much better return by doing 5 intensely focused reps compared to 20 without focus.
Both the abdominal crunch and the superman or alternating superman exercises may be a staple in many therapy programs. Unfortunately, although some individuals may have a tolerance and/or higher threshold for the stresses experienced during these exercises, they are both actually very poor choices with regard to improving resistance to low back injury. We recommend that you avoid them. That discussion is, however, for another day.
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