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Vail Daily column: Training progressions to reduce back pain

Ryan W. Richards
Make It Count

Last week, I raised some questions regarding back health. Are people with strong, enduring backs living pain free because they have strong backs? Or, are back pain sufferers living in discomfort because they can’t train hard; their backs hurt, disabling them from training the right way to get their spines strong in the first place? I don’t have all the answers mainly because pain is a complex issue, and I’m not a medical care provider. But because of my extensive history with back problems in my previous life and undergoing a massive spinal fusion surgery, I have come to some general conclusions.

The origin from back pain can be psychosomatic, idiopathic, mechanical, from arthritic changes, soft tissue and disc problems to name a few. The best exercises initially, increase the endurance and stiffening of the core muscles. A great example is the bird dog exercise in which the exerciser situates on all fours and with a slightly extended spine, raises the left leg straight behind her while instantaneously raising the right arm out in front of her body. This exercise is so good because the spine doesn’t move even though the torso muscles are all engaged. The shoulder and hip muscles are also dynamically active causing the leg and arm to move respectively creating quality movement where it is needed (hips and shoulders). Another great exercise is the side bridge which the exerciser rests on his side with the elbow underneath his shoulder. He begins the exercise by stacking his legs on top of each other and bridges his body; supporting himself only on the elbow and feet, pushing his hips toward the ceiling. Similarly to the bird dog, the side bridge causes a stiffening of the torso laterally on one side through increasing muscle activity and the spine doesn’t move. These two exercises are a really great starting place for building the high performance spine.

Develop Core Muscles

It is extremely advisable as the exerciser progresses through these workouts initially, to add repetitions and time that the muscles are under tension. Research has shown that for reducing back pain, core muscles that are developed using exercises that build endurance are more appropriate to exercises that build strength. There is a strong correlation between increased muscular endurance of the torso muscles and a reduction in back pain for the chronic sufferer. However, it is important to build strength in the hips and shoulders, but not until later on in the program once spinal stability is achieved and pain has been reduced. This is where the rubber meets the road.

You see, most back pain sufferers discontinue training once pain has been reduced through corrective exercises. But, life and sport don’t care about isolated strengthening of specific muscles to reduce pain. Life only cares about the big picture that considers the entire body moving together as a unit. After corrective exercise strategies have run their course, the sufferer needs to create useable strength that considers exhausting the hips and legs correctly to spare the spine.

I strongly believe that the best exercises that allow the body to move while promoting spinal integrity involve a standing position, moving around the hip joint through a full range of motion with a reasonable weight. The best likely candidate is the kettlebell swing, and possibly a deadlift variation. I’m very careful to suggest that any specific exercise is the end all for a particular purpose. However, I have only seen two individuals in 10 years who could not tolerate these lifts. Everyone I’ve ever seen who had suffered chronic, low back pain got better after establishing good movement and then progressing to kettlebell swings or deadlifts. The kettlebell swing and deadlift get bad reputations in the industry because they are extremely technical lifts that require very strong coaching. Performed without proper coaching, these lifts can put you in the hospital. Swinging a heavy kettlebell or deadlifting strengthen the legs, butt, lower and upper back, and abdominals. The proper execution of these lifts reinforces a neutral spine while aggressively activating all of the musculature responsible for supporting the spine in its neutral position. These lifts performed correctly, and with a heavy load build bulletproof backs. This article is not intended to discuss the intricate techniques of these lifts, see a qualified coach.

Please note again, I am not a medical professional who diagnoses and treats diseases. It is inappropriate for me to insinuate that these exercises are a cure all for those suffering from back pain. Injuries to the spine are numerous, and the treatment modalities can be quite different depending on the injury suffered. My scope of practice is to train healthy adults and children for improved fitness and performance, and therefore I pick the right exercises for the goals of the individual. The above guidelines have worked exceedingly well for myself and for my students who come in suffering from chronic back pain. Lastly, please see a medical care provider if you suffer from back pain before engaging in any exercise program.

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.


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