The back is more than the spinal column or a collection of parts, says Eric Goodman, DC, author of The Foundation Training Solution and creator of Foundation Training, a program designed to alleviate acute and -chronic back pain. It’s a complex, interrelated system of components that have evolved to work together seamlessly.
Of all the structures in the body, the lower back is among the most vulnerable to both over and underuse. Lifestyle choices affect this area in a variety of ways, and simply being fit and active doesn’t make you immune to back problems.
“Ironman athletes and sedentary people come to me with the exact same problems,” says Goodman. Repetitive movements — especially those requiring bending and twisting — can be particularly hard on the back, as can lifting heavy objects with an excessively rounded back and disengaged midsection.
But the real game changer, experts agree, is something you’re probably doing this very moment: sitting.
When you sit — or, more commonly, slouch — for even 20 minutes at a stretch, the delicate balance among all those components is thrown into disarray. “Pretty soon, something hurts,” he says.
“Most of us sit for a living,” says Goodman. “But few of us do it well.”
Here’s how the key players in your back, hips, and core are supposed to work — and how inactivity makes their job a lot tougher.
Say “core” to the average gym-goer and most people think of the rectus abdominis, the corrugated “six-pack” of muscle on the front of the belly. But the abs are only part of the story. “Any muscle that connects directly to the pelvis is part of your core,” says Goodman. That includes the hip muscles and the spinal erectors, the snakey muscles that flank your spine; the transverse abdominis, a corsetlike sheath that encircles your waist; and the internal and external obliques, which run diagonally across your trunk. When they’re working right, the core muscles protect your spine during all types of movement: forward, back, to the side, and rotation. But if they’re not engaging properly, your back is left vulnerable.
Rib Cage (Thorax):
Most of us think of the ribs as a “cage” — one rigid block of unmoving tissue. In fact, the ribs are supposed to move, smoothly and easily, in all directions. When they don’t move, your lower back and neck move instead — and trouble develops. “When people learn to use their hips and thorax properly, and create power from those two areas instead of the lower back, it’s a huge help,” says exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, CSCS.
Your arms should hang so that your palms face your outer thighs at rest. If your palms angle backward, your shoulder joints are likely internally rotated — a common side effect of frequent slumping. Exercising with your shoulders in that position, says Goodman, is similar to loading a wheelbarrow with a misaligned wheel: “Like they teach you in engineering school, when you load an imbalanced system, it’s just going to break down.” (See “A 5-Minute Workout to Protect Your Shoulders”.
These doughnut-shaped, fibrous cushions between your vertebrae protect the vertebrae above and below. Lack of movement, explains Somerset, dehydrates these discs, so they lose much of their resiliency and mobility. Sit for too long and you’re that much more prone to injury when you finally do get up. Solution? “Wiggle around, shift positions,” he says. “Don’t get stuck in one place for long.”
If your brain is the nervous system’s head coach, the spine is its quarterback — the smart-but-vulnerable player your muscles work hard to protect. The impulses for nearly every move you make, voluntary and involuntary, pass right through it. “The spine is more than a structure that holds you up,” says Goodman. “It’s the major communication channel for your central nervous system and every cell in your body.” That’s why back dysfunction can lead to so many other issues, he explains, including leg pain, digestive and sexual problems, and even depression.
When problems in nearby structures arise, the lower back usually takes the punishment. Sometimes lower-back muscles are weak and overstretched; other times they’re strong but overworked. One way or another, there’s a bug in your system that’s pulling the lower back out of the slightly extended, “neutral” position it likes best. That’s a problem, especially when you exercise. “The back can tolerate lots of different positions when it’s unloaded,” says Somerset. “But when you lift weights, swing a bat, or do anything athletic, you want it to stay neutral and avoid going too far into either flexion or extension.”
Many back problems start right here, at the second-most-mobile joint in your body (the first being your shoulders). Sitting “glues” your hips into place, limiting their range of motion to a fraction of what it should be. Without proper movement in your hips, your spine has to overcompensate as you go about your day. The result is dysfunction and pain.
The pelvis is your power center: Your largest bones (the femurs, or thighbones) and your largest muscles (the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes) are anchored to it. For athletes, rotation in the pelvis powers forehand swings and right crosses; for the rest of us, proper pelvic alignment keeps our posture straight and our spines safe. “Ideally, the torso is supported by the broad muscles of the pelvis,” says Goodman. “But when those muscles don’t do their job, people try to support the torso using muscles further up the body.”
This article originally appeared as part of “Rebuild Your Back” in the March 2016 issue of Experience Life. To order a back issue, call 800-897-4056 (press option 3 when prompted). To get all the articles from each issue of Experience Life, subscribe online at ELmag.com/articlesubscribe.