If you are looking for a way to strengthen the supporting muscles of your spinal column, a quick glance at any fitness magazine, website, or textbook will probably give you the same set of standard exercises to strengthen your spine. These exercises will likely be movements that involve lower back extension, sometimes only involving bodyweight and other times with the added resistance of weights or a resistance band.
The most obvious issue that arises from this is whether the spinal column can be trained in other ways. After all, the spine does more than just forward flexion and extension, it rotates and bends laterally as well. In fact most of the time its primary role is stabilization, meaning it needs to be strong without any movement, as in the case of holding an object overhead, or simply maintaining proper healthy posture. Since the movement of the spine is not limited to flexion and extension, why would the exercises we use only involve those two movements? What other exercises can be done to strengthen the support of the spinal column?
The importance of stabilization
While flexion and extension are the spinal movements that are most commonly reinforced during training, stabilization is the most common demand placed on our spine during our activities of daily living. This means that static strength is crucial towards the health of our spinal column. Static stabilization refers to keeping the spinal column straight and in line while we move other parts of our bodies such as our arms and legs. Virtually every activity, be it walking, running, cooking, cleaning, or even standing upright requires static stabilization of the spine. Moreover, the lack of proper alignment during stabilization often leads to chronic lower back pain and poor posture.
How to strengthen static stabilization
As simple as this may sound, the most functional and effective way to strengthen the static stabilization of your spine is by consciously maintaining proper spinal alignment while performing any exercise. This method is most effective when the exercises performed are multi-joint movements that involve large muscle groups. These types of movements are typically complex enough to make spinal alignment a demanding and conscious task. Examples of such exercises include weighted squats, lunges, overhead presses, and rows. The common element of all spine-strengthening exercises is that they are all performed using free-weights such as barbells and dumbbells rather than machine based exercises in which the spine is supported by a back pad. When the spine is not stabilized by a back pad, its stabilization relies solely on the supporting muscles to do the work. Hence the importance that health professionals place on always incorporating non-machine based exercises into your workout program.
A second class of exercises that have proven to be beneficial are body-weight exercises such as push ups, chin-ups, single-leg squats, and handstand push ups. These movements also place a great demand on the individual to maintain a stable spine while exerting large muscle groups through multi-joint movements.
The final class of exercises that are beneficial towards strength of the spine are static core exercises. Examples of such include any variation of the plank, such as elbow, side, or inverse planks. These exercises are far less challenging than the above mentioned complex movements, however they still place an emphasis on conscious alignment of the spinal column. Static core exercises are a great way to introduce the idea of spinal alignment to novice trainees who need to develop increased body awareness.
For those who have trouble figuring out how to place their spine in the correct alignment, it is important to consult a health or exercise professional to assist you in discovering your proper posture. It is not uncommon to discover that limitations in flexibility may not allow you to align your spine correctly. This is often the case for individuals with tight muscles that are attached to the spine, hips, and shoulders. The most susceptible muscle groups include the hamstrings, hip flexors, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and pectorals. In those cases, the most beneficial exercise for the spine would be a comprehensive stretching program to release the unnatural tensions placed on the spine by the surrounding muscles, thereby allowing the individual to align properly.
To wrap it all up, by ensuring that your workout includes stretching exercises, as well as weighted non-machine based exercises that require maintenance of proper alignment of your spine, you will reinforce the proper alignment of your spinal column towards your activities of daily living. In turn, this will reduce your risk of musculoskeletal injuries as well as improve your quality of life.
Source credit: MTFIT.CA by Mahdi Altalibi and Tyler Rabey. Certified personal trainers and head trainers at Klub Athletik Griffintown