When most people think of strength training, they think of the muscle-heads in the gym, grunting and groaning as they lift hundreds of pounds of iron. “I don’t want to look like that!” they think, walking past the weight machines and free weights to do yet another hour on the elliptical.
Even if you don’t visit your local fitness center on a regular basis, there’s a good chance that strength training isn’t part of your regular exercise regimen. While everyone can benefit from making their muscles stronger, those who suffer from back pain might actually benefit the most from exercises designed to strengthen the core muscles.
According to the National Institutes for Health, back pain is one of the most common medical ailments, as nearly one quarter of adults report at least one day of back pain in every three-month period. Back pain has a number of causes. Injuries and infections are the least common causes, while acquired conditions, such as arthritis and osteoporosis, and mechanical problems, or problems with the way your spine moves, are the most common. Regardless of the cause of the pain, though, experts all say the same thing: Exercise, especially strength training exercises, can prevent and relieve it.
Exercise and Pain
Many patients experiencing pain balk at the idea of exercising as part of their treatment plan. “I’m already in pain!” they say. “Working out is just going to make it worse!” And it’s true that certain exercises can exacerbate pain. Cardiovascular exercises like running and cycling are inherently hard on joints and tendons, and can aggravate existing injuries if you try to do them or are too vigorous before your injury heals.
However, exercise is still often part of the plan when you visit a pain treatment center. There are a number of reasons that strength training takes center stage, including:
Weight control. Carrying excess weight puts the strain on your entire body, including your back. Studies show that weight training can actually increase the metabolic rate by up to 15 percent, meaning that the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn — and the easier it is to keep extra weight off. Strength training can also help diabetics control their glucose, which also contributes to weight control.
Stronger bones. In addition to strengthening your muscles, strength training can actually make your bones stronger. Stronger bones means a reduced risk of fracture and other issues that can lead to back pain
Better spinal support.When the muscles of the core — the back and abdomen, as well as the glutes and thighs — are weak and underdeveloped, they do not effectively support the spine, leading to posture problems and pain.
Relieves pressure. In some cases, back pain is caused by pressure on certain nerves due to the narrowing of the spine in that area. Exercises can relieve that pressure by opening up space between the spine and the nerves.
Improved balance and flexibility. Strength training helps loosen tight muscles, allowing for a larger range of motion, and helps reduce the likelihood of a fall or other injury.
What Exercises Should You Do?
Anyone suffering from chronic back pain, meaning pain that lasts for more than a few days and doesn’t have an obvious cause, like soreness after a long day of yard work, should see a doctor for a full evaluation before embarking on any exercise plan. Doing the wrong exercises can make pain worse or even lead to injury.
Most doctors will recommend a program of light strength training exercises; remember you aren’t training for a bodybuilding competition! One small study found that by following a regimen that included weight training three days a week for 15 weeks had a 60 percent improvement in overall pain and function. These exercises in this regimen, which were performed with light weights, targeted the legs (leg presses, leg extensions, and leg curls), back and chest (bench press, incline press, and lateral pulldown), arms (shoulder press, bicep curls and triceps dips) and the abdomen and back (abdominal crunches and planks). These exercises strengthened the key muscles that support the back, and improved overall health in the process.
Again, talk with a health care provider before beginning any strength training program, and work with an experienced trainer to learn the correct form to avoid further injury. If you do, though, you might find that your days of back pain are numbered.