Perhaps the most important step for maintaining for a strong and healthy back and — and one that can be practiced at all times of day — is to recognize and practice good posture.
“Good” or more accurately, appropriate posture has many benefits, and from spinal-skeletal perspective, it distributes forces throughout the spine rather than overloading specific areas, which often leads to injury. Good posture also can prevent injuries associated with extended use of so-called “relaxed” positions (including slouching and hunching) that can lead to debilitating conditions over time.
One way to achieve the appropriate seated or standing posture, is to simply sit or stand “tall” with the stomach pulled up and in. This position aligns the spine and involves the support of the abdominal muscles. It should be noted that it is not uncommon for someone who is unaccustomed to this position to become fatigued. However, practice and awareness are the two keys to success and most people can adapt quickly.
So what is “good” posture? And what, for that matter, is “bad” (or “poor”) posture?
Good posture can be thought of as balanced posture, that is, a state of skeletal and muscular balance and alignment that guards the supporting structures of the body from injury and deformity over time. Another way to think of relationship between balance and posture is that with good posture, the body’s joints are in a state of equilibrium with respect to vertical and rotational forces. So, whether a person is standing, lying, squatting or bending, good posture allows the muscles to function at their most efficient.
Poor, faulty, or dysfunctional posture can be thought of as an imbalance among the skeletal structures of the body, which can lead to strain on the body’s supporting structures. With poor posture, the body is balanced less efficiently over its base of support and this can have a negative impact on the efficiency of movement. For those reasons alone, maintaining a balanced posture is important for all physical activities, whether they are mobile or stationary.
The Spine & Flexibility
There are four divisions in the spinal column, according to curvature and anatomical differences. Injuries the neck region, known as cervical vertebrae seems likely to rise due to poorly positioned computers and time on the phone, both forms of repetitive motion. The middle back, or thoracic region, typically experiences few injuries. But it is quite common for the lower back, or lumbar region, to take the brunt of many forces and consequently to receives the greatest amount of injuries -by far. This is due largely because of the amount of force it must sustain, and the twisting and bending of our pelvis relative to the spine. Spinal flexibility is desirable because it allows the trunk to adapt by means of posture to any positions and activities imposed upon it.
The spine is able to move in the following general motions: Bending forward (flexion) Bending backward (extension) Bending to either side (lateral flexion) Twisting to either side (rotation) The goal for improving or maintaining spinal flexibility should be to achieve a balance between sides with an equal amount of lateral flexion or rotation from each side. Good trunk flexion and extension can be shown by a smooth, round, curvature of the spine rather than a flat appearance when moving throughout extreme ranges of motion.
Posture & Back Strength
Increases in absolute back strength are advantageous, but when it comes to lifting heavy loads, it is the balance all the musculature in the trunk that is fundamentally important to strength and to injury prevention. In the posterior, it is the spinal erectors, which support the spinal column directly, that are extremely active during movements involving back extension, and function isometrically while lifting heavy loads in unsupported postures. The set of muscles that is antagonistic to the spinal erectors are known as the rectus abdominus muscles. When well developed, these the result in the famed “washboard” abdominals. These muscles are most active during moves that involve trunk flexion. A third set of muscles, the external obliques, internal obliques, and transversus abdominus allow for rotation and stability as they wrap around the entire torso in three separate muscular layers, functioning in essence as a built-in brace. It is the contractions of these muscles that compress the contents of the abdomen, increasing intra-abdominal and intrathoracic pressure in the process. This acts also to stabilize the spine against postural stresses, such as during heavy lifting.
Exercises for Stretching the Back
It’s been said that there may be as many ways to train the back as there are to strain the back. For the purposes of this article, we will mention several that are relatively easy to do and that do some real good. The back is part of an interlinked system that allows for bodily movement. This system includes the hamstrings, gluteal, hip stabilizers, flexors, and abdominals are all part of this system. Tight hamstrings and weak abdominals are quite often the prime culprits in back injuries. To stretch the hamstrings or any muscle make sure to:
1) Go slowly;
2) Isolate the tendons and muscles you are trying to stretch;
3) Hold the stretch at least 15 seconds (preferably 30 seconds) and place yourself into a “slight discomfort zone”, but not a pain zone or a bouncing pain zone.
First of all, perform a brief amount of light general activity if possible before stretching. Put a foot on some flat object at least 15 inches high (chair height). Try to lock the raised knee and keep the back very straight or even slightly arched. Move the torso or chest down slowly without curling the back over. One way to tell if the back is not straight is if it is possible to move more than 1-2 inches.
For the lower back, lateral stretches or movements in a rotary fashion and straight back and forward can be beneficial. While you are sitting on the floor or even a chair if you are inflexible, bend your trunk forward and grab your ankles with your elbows outside of your knees. Pull yourself forward until you feel some pain and gently take a long breath out. You should not try to keep your back straight on this one. While you are seated you can reach over with one arm to the opposite knee (outer edge) and twist around. Try to grab the back of the chair with the other arm and breath out. If you are standing then step forward with one foot and reach forward and grab the outer edge something stationary with the opposite arm. A door jam or vertical pole works best. Breath out and try to look behind yourself. The release of hydrostatic pressure that often results in a cracking sound may sound scary, but will probably feel great.
The gluteus muscles are a bit more difficult to stretch. Try crossing your legs with the ankle of one leg on the knee of the other. Grab your foot and the knee of the raised leg and pull it toward your torso. Try not to lean into it too much and hold the stretch for at least 15 seconds. Repeat with the other leg.
Moves for Back Strength
Strengthening the back should be done just as you would strengthen any other part of the body. That is, they exercise should be gradually and progressive with the appropriate rest in-between workouts.
The main muscles of the back are best strengthened by the use of a variety of extension, isometric, flexion, and trunk twisting core exercises. Some examples include:
Straight-leg dead lifts
Hanging leg raises with twisting
Using a medicine ball
When performing any of the above moves, remember that the overarching goal is to achieve balance.
1. HASLEGRAVE, CHRISTINE M. “What do we mean by a ‘working posture’?.” Ergonomics 37.4 (1994): 781-799.
2. Kumar, S., R. M. Dufresne, and D. Garand. “Effect of posture on back strength.” International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics 7 (1991): 53-62.
3. National Federation of Professional Trainers (2008). Personal Fitness Trainer Manual – The Fundamentals for the Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) (5th ed.) Lafayette, IN: NFPT