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Wellness & Prevention

Galter LifeCenter members stretch to help strengthen their back muscles.

Strengthening and stretching to relieve an aching back

Get to the core of the issue by following these 6 exercises and 4 stretches
Anne Stein
Contributing writer
Galter LifeCenter members stretch to help strengthen their back muscles.

Anyone who’s had low back pain knows it can be frustrating to find the right stretch to relieve the pain — touching your toes, twisting your back and bending backward don’t seem to do the trick. That’s because the culprit is often not the back muscles but instead weak muscles nearby.

“The hamstrings, glutes and muscles of the low back work together as a team when you walk and run, and they help support the spine when you’re standing,” said Sue Talbert, personal trainer and post-rehabilitation medical exercise specialist at Galter LifeCenter. “The glutes are the largest of the three, and when they’re weak the other muscles jump in and take up the load — and you’ll feel it in the low back.”

Nearly everyone experiences low back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health. It most often strikes between ages 30 and 50 and affects men and women equally, says the NIH, which points to everything from not enough exercise to injury, obesity, stress, bad posture and poor sleeping position as causes.

Talbert recommends the following exercises and stretches to help relieve moderate, everyday low back pain. Note, if you’ve suffered severe back trauma or have recently had surgery or need back surgery, talk to your doctor before exercising.

Back strengthening exercises: Start slowly with these exercises and work pain-free.

1. Bridges: Lie on back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Contract glutes, lift hips off the floor, hold 4-6 seconds. Slowly lower and lift again, repeat 8-12 times. This will work your glutes.

2. Standing hip extension: Hold back of chair, squeeze glutes and lift leg slowly behind you, keeping leg straight, don’t tip forward; lower and repeat 8-12 times. This will work your glutes.

3. Prone hip extension: Lie on stomach, put forehead on top of hands, draw in abs, keep hips on ground and contact a glute. Lift leg straight and try to lift thigh off floor; slowly lower. Repeat 6-10 times. This will work your glutes.

4. Half squat: Push glutes out as if you’re about to sit on a chair and lower yourself 45 degrees. Squeeze glutes as you stand up. Repeat 8-12 times. This will work your glutes.

5. Plank: Lie down on floor, resting on stomach/thighs. With elbows directly under shoulders, place forearms and hands forward and lift body several inches, creating a plank, back straight, resting on balls of feet and elbows/forearms. Keep abs and glutes tight. Hold up to 60 seconds. Variation: Add left and right side planks, resting weight on sides of feet and elbow/forearm. (This will work your abs)

6. Bird Dog: Hands and knees on the floor (on all fours), hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Lift one arm and point straight ahead, hold it while lifting opposite leg straight behind you. Lower both limbs at same time. Repeat with other arm and leg. You might need to start by lifting limbs just slightly off floor. This will work your back, abs and balance.
Stretching for low back: The American College of Sports Medicine recommends holding a stretch for 15-60 seconds. No bouncing. Breathe, relax into it, let the tissue lengthen. Repeat 2-4 times.

1. Inner thigh: Sit on floor, bend both knees to form a diamond shape with legs, soles of feet together in front of you. Place hands on inside of knees and gently press down.

2. Quadriceps: Hold on to chair or wall. Stand on one leg, bring heel toward butt, gently grasp ankle (or sock or pant cuff) and pull heel toward buttocks. 

3. Back/hamstrings: Lie on back with both knees bent, feet flat on floor. Bring one knee toward chest, grasp leg behind the thigh, pulling knee to chest. Straighten that leg toward ceiling, keeping slight bend. Variation: Bring both knees to chest.  To increase hamstring stretch, straighten one leg at a time.

4. Back: Lie on back with knees bent, feet flat on floor and arms out to sides. Slowly let both knees fall to left, back to center, then drop to right. When knees drop to right, left hip lifts off floor, but keep left shoulder on floor.

Do’s and Don’ts when exercising:
• Don’t hyperextend your low back. Keep your back in a neutral (level) position.
• Don’t do any of your stretches/strengthening with a jerking or ballistic movement or at uncontrolled speed.
• Do pick things up properly, using your leg strength rather than your back.
• Do hold heavy objects close to the body; the farther away something is as you lift, the more load it places on the spine. 

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