Best way to avoid back pain is to exercise

No More Back Pain

You can turn a bad back into a good back. Just 15 minutes a day can give you a lifetime of freedom from back pain.

BACK EXPERTS AGREE that one of the best ways to avoid back pain is to exercise: If you keep your body flexible, strong and well conditioned, they say, you're far less likely to get a backache.

Still, simply being active isn't enough, since back pain hits active men, too. (Sports greats Joe Montana, Larry Bird, Don Mattingly, Jack Nicklaus and Mario Lemieux all have bum backs.)

If you're among the 53 percent of men who have been laid low by back pain, you know what a downright frustrating and debilitating experience it can be. You're in agony, you can't work, you can't play, you can't walk, you can't get in and out of bed on your own, let alone make love while you're there. Back pain makes weak men out of strong ones.

But you don't have to take back pain lying down. The experts are right about the significance of exercise, but it's important to get the right kind. If your fitness regimen consists of playing tennis a couple of times a week, hefting weights solely to build killer biceps and riding your bike on weekends, you qualify as active, but you aren't doing much that will help build a stronger back. To do that, you have to target your back for its own exercise program.

Despite all the scary talk you hear about blown disks and degenerating joints, the vast majority of painful back episodes are caused by muscle strain, which, among active men, usually comes from two things, says Mitch Bogdanffy, an exercise physiologist at the Texas Back Institute (TBI).

The first is demanding more of back muscles than they can handle: lifting heavy objects improperly (the familiar advice to lift with the legs, keeping the back straight and objects close to the body, is ignored with astonishing regularity) or going overboard on leisure activities such as sports and gardening.

Take it easy at first

You're particularly at risk of throwing out your back with racquet sports, golf, bowling, football, canoeing, baseball, basketball or anything requiring lots of arching, twisting and sudden starts and stops. To minimize back strain from these sports, it's best to take it easy at the start of the season or when first learning, always easing muscles in and out of activity with warm-ups, cool-downs and stretches.

with warm-ups, cool-downs and stretches. A second cause of strain is weak muscles, especially in the abdomen. Strong abdominal muscles help to stabilize the lower back, the spine's most vulnerable point. Weak ones allow an exaggerated curve in the lower back, a posture that crimps muscles, nerves and disks.

One study found back-pain sufferers to have just as much back-muscle endurance as healthier people, but weaker stomach muscles. You don't have to be doing anything particularly strenuous to throw out your back if the abdominal muscles are soft-many men report being flattened by pain while bending over to tie a shoelace or pat the dog, or reaching around to grab a briefcase off the car seat. These actions by themselves don't cause the backache; they're just the straw that broke the camel's you-know-what

camel's you-know-what "A weak belly strains the muscles that run along the lower spine," explains physical therapist and fitness author Carol Greenburg. 'They are always being pulled, they are always resisting, and they simply get exhausted from the effort. Simple exhaustion can throw a muscle into spasm, a contraction that feels like a knot, hurts like the devil and won't let go for days."

let go for days." If your problem is weak abdominals (which it probably is if you're not currently doing anything specific to strengthen them), boosting the muscles with exercise is the best thing you can do to protect your back.

The YMCA Healthy Back Program, a respected exercise regimen that dates back to the 1940s, devotes its strengthening exercises almost exclusively to the abdominals. In an evaluation of 233 patients who took part in the program, 82 percent found that their usual back pain either stopped or decreased significantly. Only 2.5 percent of the participants showed little or no improvement Specifically, here's how building strong stomach muscles can help bolster your back.

It stabilizes the spine. 'The abdominal muscles and the low back muscles together form a column of muscles that must be strong all around," says Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., YMCA national strength-training consultant When strong and balanced, these trunk muscles ease the spine's structural and weight-earrying burden. "But if one side is weak, it may put excess stress on the spine and the nerves and tissue that sur� round it," Dr. Westcott says.

It cuts flab. A potbelly can make spinal instability worse. "For Americans, the abdomen is exercised very little, and it's where body fat tends to migrate," says Dr. Westcott It's a double whammy, like sending extra traffic to a congested bridge with weak supports. Something's got to give-in this case, your spine. Coupling a low-fat diet with a full exercise program that emphasizes abdominals may be as close as you can get to natural liposuction for the gut

It eases everyday movements. A strong abdomen helps the body cope with everyday resistive activities, whether moving furniture or climbing stairs, lugging a heavy suitcase or catching a ball. "If those abdominal muscles are weak, you']] overcompensate with your back," says TBI physical therapisl Paula Gilbert. 'This can lead to a back sprain over and over again. You need to have these stomach and back muscles synergized-working together-or your back will not respond well after injury."


Zeroing in on your stomach muscles makes almost nc sense, however, if you neglect everything else. At the Texa! Back Institute, specialists emphasize the importance of cardio vascular fitness for decreasing back pain and injury, and ree ommend aerobic exercise-walking, swimming, water exercis es, stationary cycling-for any back-building program.

"Cardiovascular exercise lubricates the joints and stretches muscles so they're less prone to strain arid tearing," says Stephen Hochschuler, M.D., surgeon and TBI cofounder. Research backs this up: A study of 1,652 firefighters found that the most cardiovascularly fit of them had ten times fewer debilitating back injuries than the least fit

Exercise also promotes the efficient transport of oxygen to muscles, which helps healing, and boosts daily production of your body's self-made painkillers, endorphins and enkephalins.

To strengthen specific muscles that support the spine and help the back do its job, you also need to include the abdominals, the oblique muscles (running from the back of the spine to the front of the abdomen), the extensor muscles of the lower back and the leg muscles that share lifting duty.

The following routine hits them all, but especially works those abdominals. You can do the complete workout at home in less than 15 minutes .

back pain The Short Leg to Back Pain If you have an aching back, it may be because one of your legs Is shorter than the other. Even a slight Inequality can cause the spine to curve to the short side when you walk or run. Eventually, the bend puts painful pressure on disks. Most people can't tell If their legs are different lengths, says researcher Steven McCaw, Ph.D., of Illinois State University: �� A tailor measuring for pants is often the first to pick it up." The simplest way to correct the problem is to put a Dr. Scholl-type therapeutic insert into your shoe to give the shorter leg a lift.

First, some pointers:

  • To get the most back-boosting benefits, do the exercises three or more times a week.
  • Exercise with slow, controlled movements: Speed adds momentum, momentum carries you, and the muscles end up doing less work.
  • Avoid full sit-ups, which use only about 30 percent of the abdominal muscles, leaving the hip flexors to do most of the ! work. If you rise only slightly, your abdominals will do 90 per'" . cent of the work.
  • When you're performing these exercises, put something between you and the ground. A body-length mat, available at just about any sporting goods store, cushions your back much. better than a cold, hard floor.
  • People with back pain can usually do light exercises. But see a doctor first if no position gives you relief, if your pain's lasted more than two weeks, if it radiates down your leg to your knee or foot, or if simple movement makes the pain worse.

Now, your routine:

Pelvic tilt. This exercise primarily strengthens abdominal muscles, but it also builds muscles in the lower back that keep it properly aligned with the pelvis.

Lie on your back, with your knees bent and your arms extended to the side. Press your lower back against the floor by tightening the abdominal muscles and squeezing the buttocks. Hold for ten seconds. Repeat five to ten times.

Partial curl. This targets the rectus abdominis muscles at the front of the body.

Lie on your back with your knees bent. Extend your hands straight out between your thighs. Slowly curl your upper torso until your shoulder blades leave the floor, exhal� ing while rising. Hold for ten seconds. Do 5 reps the first week, then increase by 5 a week until you can do 15.

Advanced curl. Move on to this exercise when you can easily do 20 partial curls.

Lie on your back, with your knees bent and your fingers lightly touching your ears. Slowly curl your upper torso until your shoulders leave the floor, exhaling. Hold for ten seconds.

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