The Full-Body Exercise Routine That Will Prevent Lower Back Pain

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If someone told you that three sets of overhead presses at 15 reps would keep that dull ache in your lower back from flaring up, would you grab the dumbbells and get to work? According to a recent report by researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia and the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, exercise is the best prevention method for back pain.

The report published in the American Medical Association’s journal JAMA Internal Medicine looked at 23 previously published reports of prevention strategies for nonspecific low back pain, including 21 randomized controlled trials performed all around the world, in which more than 30,000 individuals participated.

Participants in these trials followed a program of two to three exercise sessions per week for eight weeks to 18 months. Some routines took place in the gym, while others occurred at home. And we’re not just talking back-focused exercises here. “There was some variation, but in general trials included exercises to improve strength, flexibility, skill and aerobic fitness,” lead author Daniel Steffens of the University of Sydney told Reuters. “The exercises did not just focus on the spine, but included upper and lower limb exercises as well.”

Unfortunately, more people are grabbing for their back belts and shelling out the big bucks on expensive sneaker insoles rather than investing in an exercise program. These are two products that, may I add, did not produce quality evidence when it came to preventing pain within these reports. So what’s it going to take to get the 80% of the American population that experiences back pain at some point in their lives to adhere to a regular exercise program? Plus, the program should focus on muscle, bone, and ligament development for increased strength, endurance, weight loss/control — all of which can prevent low back pain.

If you happen to fall into that 80%, maybe all you need is a safe, engaging, and simple routine — and maybe I’ve got the perfect one for you. Alright, alright; I do have it. But first, let’s get an understanding of the causes of lower back pain.

According to Mayo Clinic, back pain is most commonly linked to diseases like arthritis or osteoporosis, muscle or ligament strains, or bulging or ruptured disks from heavy lifting or awkward movements, including sports injuries. These factors are compounded by poor physical conditioning, poor nutrition, smoking, obesity, and even depression and anxiety. In fewer cases, the pain may be a result of skeletal irregularities from birth or that have developed over time.

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Now back to that exercise program I promised. If you happen to have any of the conditions mentioned, please consult with your doctor before following this program or any others. We’re not going to be playing with extreme stretches that risk hyperextension, heavy lifts that open you to bad form, or high-impact cardio that pounds on the joints. We’re going to bring it back to the basics and warm up the muscles, tendons, and ligaments as you simply go with your intuition to avoid stress or injury.

Stretching/flexibility

Each stretch should be performed for 20 to 50 seconds, two to five times. Perform the stretches in order, and feel free to reduce time or skip those that aggravate any pre-existing conditions.

Neck — Side bends: Stand with hands loosely at sides. Tilt head sideways. Hold. Release. Tilt head in opposite direction.

Neck — Flexion/extension: Stand with hands loosely at sides. Tilt head forward, then tilt head in opposite direction feeling a slight stretch.

Chest — Pectoralis major stretch: Place both arms directly behind you, palms against a flat surface with arms parallel to the floor. Push against with arms until stretch is felt in chest.

Abdomen — Lying abdominal stretch: Lie on front side, and push upper torso upwards with arms until stretch is felt. 

Lower back — Mild back stretch: With hands on the small of the back, slightly bend back until the stretch is felt.

Upper back — Latissimus dorsi stretch: Begin by kneeling and extending forward until stretch is felt. Slide hands forward and push butt backward.

Shoulder — Cross-chest stretch: Pull your left arm across your chest, and push on your elbow close to your chest with your right hand. Repeat on opposite side.

Shoulder — Behind the back stretch: Stand up, and place your left hand on the small of the back. Grab your left hand, and pull toward the right. Repeat on opposite side.

Strength

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Each strength movement should be performed at 15 to 20 reps, for two to three sets. Perform back, biceps, legs, and core on day one and day four; chest, shoulders, triceps, and core on day two and day five; rest on day three and day seven; and full body on day six. Perform in order, and feel free to reduce time or skip those that aggravate any pre-existing conditions.

Back, biceps, legs

Upper back and rear shoulders — Bent over reverse fly: Hold a light- to medium-weight dumbbell in each hand. Stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Keeping abs tight, shoulders down, and back and arms hanging straight down, hinge from hips until torso is at a 45-degree angle or almost parallel with floor. Keeping your torso stable and your elbows and wrists firm (in a fixed position), slowly lift arms out to sides until elbows are shoulder height, squeezing shoulder blades together. Pause and slowly return to start.

Glutes and hamstrings — Reverse lunges: Hold a light- to medium-weight dumbbell in each hand, hanging at sides. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Keeping abs tight, step one leg back behind you dropping both back and front knees into a 90-degree angle. Do not let the back knee touch the ground. Lean slightly forward at the hips, keep the heel of the front foot planted, and drive through the heel of the front foot squeezing through the glutes as the back leg trails back to start position.

Lats — Staggered stance lat row: Hold a light- to medium-weight dumbbell in one hand, and position yourself into a staggered stance, foot of the side holding the dumbbell toward the back and opposite foot forward. Keeping abs tight, lean forward at the hips lowering torso until it is parallel with the ground. Let the dumbbell hang at side, in line with the shoulder. Keep back straight, and pull the dumbbell through the lat muscle, not the bicep or shoulder, to the torso keeping the elbow close to your side. Pause and squeeze the lat muscle before lowering dumbbell back to start position.

Quads — Goblet squats: Hold a light- to medium-weight dumbbell under your head, cradling it in your palms, and bring it to your chest, at the collarbone line. Stand tall with feet hip-width apart, and slightly turn the toes out so that the knees can track in line with the toes. Keeping abs tight and back straight, squat down until the crease of your hip drops below the knee and the tops of your thighs are at least parallel to the ground. Drive through the heels of your feet, and extend your hips and knees to start position while squeezing through the glutes.

Keep the core at the close of the routine, as you don’t want to activate or fatigue the lower back while performing bent-over movements and those lower body movements that call for a braced, tight core.

Chest, shoulders, triceps

Chest — Dumbbell chest press: Lie down on a flat bench with a light- to medium-weight dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other, resting on top of your thighs. Use your thighs to help raise the dumbbells up, bringing them up in front of you at shoulder width. Rotate your wrists forward so that the palms of your hands are facing away from you. Be sure the dumbbells are at the side and inline with your chest, not over the shoulders, with the elbows bent to 90 degrees — this is starting position. With feet planted on the floor and lower back, shoulders, and head planted into the bench, keep the abs tight and drive the dumbbells up over the chest squeezing through the chest at the top of the movement. Slowly bring the dumbbells down to start position and repeat.

Shoulders — Dumbbell overhead press: Hold a light- to medium-weight dumbbell in each hand. Stand with feet hip-width apart, and raise the dumbbells to shoulder height as you rotate the wrists so that palms are facing out. With elbows bent to a 90-degree angle, this is start position. Keep the abs tight as you drive the dumbbells upward keeping your biceps in line with your neck and head as the arms straighten. Slowly bring the dumbbells down to start position and repeat.

Triceps — Dumbbell tricep kickback: Hold a light- to medium-weight dumbbell in one hand, and position yourself into a staggered stance, foot of the side holding the dumbbell toward the back, opposite foot forward. Keeping abs tight, lean forward at the hips lowering torso until it is parallel with the ground. Keep shoulder in place and elbow tucked to the side — this is start position — as you hinge at the elbow driving the dumbbell from hip height back fully extending the arm, squeezing through the tricep. Slowly bring the dumbbell down to start position and repeat.

Sides of shoulders — Dumbbell lateral raises: Hold a light- to medium-weight dumbbell in each hand. Stand with feet hip-width apart, with elbows bent to 90 degrees and palms facing each other — this is starting position. Keep the abs tight, and raise the dumbbells to shoulder height. Slowly bring the dumbbells down to start position and repeat.

Core

Core movements should be placed between each strength movement above to allow the activated muscles in the arms and chest to rest.

Abs — Partial crunches: Lie with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross arms over your chest, or put hands behind your neck. Tighten the abs, and raise your shoulders off the floor. Don’t pull your neck off the floor. Hold for a second, then slowly lower back down.

Abs — Birddog: Begin in a kneeling position with hands shoulder-width apart and palms pressed into ground. Keep the abs tight as you lift and extend one leg behind you — hips should be level. At the same time, lift and extend the opposite arm. Hold for five seconds, while maintaining lower back stability, and slowly lower the leg and arm. Then switch to the other leg and arm.

Cardio

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Each cardio movement should be performed at one to three minutes at a moderate pace keeping the heart rate elevated, for as many sets as possible — ultimately totaling 20 minutes to start. Perform in order, and feel free to reduce time or skip those that aggravate any pre-existing conditions.

  • High knee march
  • In-place jog
  • Quiet burpee (There is no explosive jumping. Instead, hands touch down and the feet slowly walk out behind one after the other before being walked back in and standing up tall.)

Step it up

Create a high intensity interval training (HIIT) circuit routine in which you splice cardio movements in between each strength movement. Cardio movements should span 30 to 60 seconds, with no rest before moving into the strength movement. Rest for 60 to 90 seconds at the end of each round.

Dr. Timothy S. Carey of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who coauthored a commentary accompanying the new results, said, “Back pain is 25 to 33 percent less likely to recur for people who adhere to a structured exercise program.” So it might be time to grab those dumbbells and get overhead pressing.

Ellen Thompson is a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer at Blink Fitness in New York City, where she serves as Head Trainer at the Penn Plaza location. Ellen’s approach to training is that “anything is possible.” Endurance, strength, and stability/agility training are at the core of her fitness programming. She holds a master’s degree in New Media Publishing and Magazine Editing from the prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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