Back pain is as common as a cold in winter. It can be caused by poor posture, a strained sitting position, a rough night’s sleep, a tweak during exercise or, sometimes, for no good reason whatsoever. It’s indiscriminate.
However, despite back pain’s unhappy knack of striking out of the blue, there are ways to reduce your risk of suffering from it. To help, we enlisted David McGinness, lead physiotherapist of Virgin Active’s Beyond Movement service, for some advice on exercises you can do to strengthen the back.
McGinness, along with human guinea pig and Coach editor Jonathan Shannon, demonstrated the exercises for us on a Facebook Live video filmed at Virgin Active Strand. You can check out the videos below, along with more information on common back problems and further details on how to do the stretches.
How common is back pain?
“Spinal pain, for example lower back or neck pain, makes up around 80% of all the complaints we see here,” says McGinness.
“The most common type of back pain I see is discogenic lower back pain – pain related to an injury of the vertebral discs. This is usually caused by a combination of posture and exercise, and can come on from a sudden movement – for example a deadlift, picking something up off the floor – or gradually [because of] consistently poor sitting posture. This is generally characterised by pain in the mornings and pain when bending over, for example when you put on your shoes or socks.
“The second most common is facet joint irritation/inflammation. These are the joints that connect one vertebra to the next. This is generally a little more acute and aggravated by bending the back or rotating the back.”
Another common back issue, especially in those who regularly exercise, is muscle strain. And don’t rule out the possibility of having a few of these problems at once, if you’re really unlucky.
How can stretching help?
Before we go on to detail the exercises, here’s exactly how they’re going to help.
“These exercises are quite versatile,” says McGinness. “I commonly use them for acute episodes of lower and middle back pain, but they are also quite useful for maintaining good spinal health and alignment.”
“They can be especially useful for those aching back pains that come on from sitting for long periods, although they can be useful for sciatica – that is, leg pain, tingling or numbness that originates from the nerves in the back. It is best to be seen by your physiotherapist or physician before commencing [with these exercises] to ensure that they are the best thing for you.”
As with pretty much all exercise, if you experience pain when doing the stretches, stop and get checked out by a physio to ensuring you’re not compounding any major issues.
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Sets 1-2 Reps 8-10 each side
“With this move we are attempting to mobilise the joints in the middle of your back,” says McGinness.
“The thoracic spine can become stiff, especially in people doing office-based work. This immobility leads to compensation in the upper and lower part of the back, causing an overload in the region.”
Lie down on your side. Bring your hips and knees up so both are at 90°. Hold your arms straight out to one side with your palms together. Lift your top hand up and over, exhaling as you do, rotating your torso until the arm is pointing straight out to the opposite side with your shoulders flat on the ground – or as close as you can get. Hold the position for a second or two, then while breathing in, bring your arm back over to the starting position. Move your head so it follows your hand as it moves. Do all the reps on one side before switching to the other.
Set 2-3 Reps 8-10
“Known as the cobra stretch in yoga, this one’s good for discogenic lower back pain – where you feel pain bending down when you’re putting on your shoes in the morning,” McGinness explains.
Lie face down on the floor with your hands palm down in line with your shoulders, fingers facing forward and elbows bent at a 90° angle. Keep your elbows tucked in as you press your palms into the floor and raise first your head, and then your chest, keeping your pelvis in contact with the ground as you do. Raise your chest and straighten your arms until you feel a good stretch in the lower back – you don’t have to completely straighten your arms. If your hips start to raise off the ground you’ve found the right stopping point. You should find you can raise your chest a little higher as you work through the eight to ten reps of each set.
The first two moves should help achieve a greater range of movement in the back and adding the plank to your routine helps you to control that additional movement.
Make sure your posture is perfect to get the full benefits of the plank. Your weight should be supported by the balls of your feet and your elbows, and your back and hips should be aligned to form a straight line from shoulders to ankles. Fix your gaze about 45° in front of you to help engage the muscles in your mid-back and neck. How long you hold it is up to you, but there’s no point continuing if your form isn’t spot on.
“My clients start anywhere from ten to 15 seconds, up to three minutes,” says McGinness. “When you start to feel like you’re losing control, or shaking too much, stop and reset.”
Set 3 Reps 12
“This combines gluteal activation with core activation,” says McGinness.
“It’s great for everyone from office-based workers right up to ultramarathon runners. This exercise primes your body for exercise, and helps to prevent what I like to call ‘lazy bum syndrome’.”
Lie face up with your knees bent so your feet are flat on the ground. Raise your toes off the floor, squeeze your bum and drive through your heels to lift your hips until your knees, hips and shoulders form a straight line. Hold the raised position for a couple of seconds, then slowly lower your hips back to the start.
“You should feel your bum as the primary driver,” says McGinness. “If you’re feeling it in your thighs or lower back, reset and start again.”