How to protect and strengthen your back for fitness

Back pain is commonplace, but it doesn’t have to be. By building the right core foundations, you can move, work and lift free from back twinges – so long as you know what’s causing it. 

Who doesn’t have back pain these days? After months of sitting crouched over a laptop on the sofa or kitchen table, loads of us have started to develop lower back niggles, crunchy shoulders and stiff necks. If you live with back pain (particularly if you’ve experienced the agony of a slipped disc, for example), the chances are that you’ll want to do anything to protect your back – swerving road running, heavy weightlifting and other potentially awkward movements.

But in all honesty, it’s probably not your back that’s the problem – it’s your core. Whenever people turn up to osteopath Nadia Alibhai’s clinic with back issues, she tends to start by looking at how strong their core is. “The core really helps to protect the back and spine,” she explains. “If you think about it, day-to-day, we use our arms a lot; we use our legs a lot; we don’t use our core as much – especially when working from home.” Instead, we’re still sitting on our sofas, beds and stools.

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Getting to the core of back pain

It’s all very well condemning desk workers for sitting too much but if you don’t have a standing desk and don’t want to quit your job for a more active career, what are you supposed to do? Well, Alibhai tells Stylist, everyone could activate their core muscles more by investing in a Swiss ball. “It doesn’t feel like much but you’d still be activating your core,” she says. “Core activation is really important.”

The issue with core work is, Alibhai believes, that many of us get it wrong. We think that we have to do sit-ups and crunches to work the abs when, actually, we need to get into a plank position. “We need to go into rotation work, get a resistance band, get cables, rotate through the full range of motion, get some weights to flex and extend.” 

That’s because our core muscles aren’t just the abs you see or feel at the front. Instead, the core acts like a kind of corset that encases the whole middle part of your body – hugging the sides and back as well as the front area. Because of that, she says: “The stronger your core is, the less likely you are going to end up with actual back injuries.”

In other words, a lot of back tenderness is triggered by having an underactive core. 

If you do work from home and have the room, sitting on a swiss ball can help to engage the core every day without much thinking.

Women are better at strengthening core muscles than men

However, in Alibhai’s experience, it’s men who tend to fall foul of the weak core-back dynamic and that’s because for years, core workouts have been marketed towards women. Sure, those bums and tums classes may have been smothered in the rhetoric of weight loss and fat burning but the end result is that many of us have stronger ab and oblique muscles than our male gym buddies.

“Women seem to work more with the core than, say, male bodybuilders,” she explains. “I find that a lot of women who do pilates, for example, have greatly activated core muscles. And then I’ll get a man who’s come in having done years of bodybuilding and suddenly got a disc herniation.” 

Guys like that may look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and because of their size and strength, they’re totally at a loss to how it is that they’re suddenly in crippling pain. “How did that happen? His core is not activating, so internally, that core set isn’t holding.”

He may be able to do 100 push-ups in five minutes and crunch his way through a 30-minute podcast but the chances are that he’s not worked on the side core at all.

“It’s about getting all the core muscles involved with side bending – working the obliques as well on the actual spinal muscles and working with back flexion. You want to also get the glutes involved because they’re a powerhouse. You’ll see that people with strong glutes naturally stand taller.” 

Once you’ve got back pain, it’s better to keep on moving

Once you’re injured, it can be more than tempting to allow yourself to grind to a halt – something that can make pain even worse. “When people have pain, they want to protect themselves,” she explains. We’ve all been there; the moment you get a twinge or sharp pain, you go into protection mode. 

If you’ve had an injury, the fear of repeating that pain can have you curled into a tight ball scared to move. But as the old adage goes: motion is lotion. You’ve got to move (albeit carefully). And more importantly, you’ve got to strengthen whatever set of muscles it was that let you down in the first place. 

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Those new to fitness should start with pilates or other core-strengthening moves

If you’ve never really exercised before, the best place to start if you want to stay injury-free, Alibhai says, is by strengthening the core. “That is that middle ground. Everything above and below it – if that core is strong – will hold well. So, I would start off with plank work and resistance band oblique work.

“For people who are new to working out and feel a bit hesitant, I always say ‘don’t go balls to walls’ but just take it slowly and work at your own pace. Fitness is a process, a journey. If you want to see yourself looking super fit, that’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen from running on a treadmill for three hours on your first go. Instead, you want to work on different body parts that will then engage your core and just get the body moving.”

She recommends starting with a beginner’s pilates class to stretch and strengthen and then look at what cardio you can do. Get the limbs moving on the cross trainer or spin bike, for example. Interestingly, Alibhai doesn’t recommend hopping straight on a treadmill if you’ve never run before: “I don’t think that would be the way forward because they would only have a long-term letdown, and my concern would be them picking up an injury. If you’ve got a PT on hand, fine, but otherwise, it’s better to think about working all the body groups individually.”

But whatever you do, don’t forget that bloody core!

3 core-strengthening moves for a stronger back

Hollow hold

  1. Start lying on your back
  2. Lift the head off the floor and raise your legs off the ground – straightening them ahead of you
  3. Slowly, lift the arms and shoulders off the mat too, straightening the arms behind your head
  4. Only the middle and lower back should now be on the mat
  5. Engage the core to flatten the space between your lower back and the floor – there shouldn’t be any gaps
  6. Stay in that position for 10 seconds, working your way up to 30
  7. Slowly lower

(Note: the higher your legs, the easier the position is – the lower, the more your core has to work)

Dead bug

  1. Again, begin on your back
  2. Keeping the back flat on the floor, lift your legs into tabletop with arms straight above you
  3. Slowly straighten the right leg out, keeping the left bent and as you do that, lengthen the opposite arm behind your head
  4. Come back to centre and switch arm/leg

Note: the key here is to really focus on keeping that back resolutely stuck to the mat throughout the exercise

Knee hovers

  1. Flip over to come into an all-fours position
  2. Pushing up through the shoulders and locking in the core, lift the knees an inch from the mat
  3. Hold for four seconds – staying absolutely still
  4. Lower and lift again

Work on developing better core strength with a 15-minute mobility class on the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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