Low Back Pain: Get Started with Abdominal Exercises

Low back injuries usually do not occur from one single incident or event like lifting a heavy box.  Instead, most back injuries occur from small incremental stress or load applied over time.  Sitting slouched for prolonged periods at a desk or repeatedly performing bending and twisting can overload sensitive spinal structures.  These structures include the muscles, facet joints, ligaments, discs, and nerves.   Muscle weakness, poor endurance, poor position awareness, and previous history of injury can make one more susceptible to low back injuries.  Most of these injuries are not serious and do not require extensive testing or treatment.

The core muscles function to spare the lumbar spine and surrounding structures from excessive load.  These muscles include the abdominals, low back musculature, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles.  No single muscle is more important than the others.  Human movement and low back pain are more complex than one muscle or structure.  Instead, all muscles should ideally function together in coordination.  Pain interferes with coordination and control.  The specific task being performed determines the magnitude and timing of core muscle activity.  Some tasks require a very low load and level of muscle activity such as bending to tie the shoes.  Other tasks require greater muscle activation patterns at high speeds such as swinging a baseball bat.

Exercises to train the core musculature should begin with low loads focusing on control and endurance.  Exercises performed lying on the back targeting the abdominal muscles is a great place to start.  The following exercises can be performed by those with low back pain or those with a history of back pain looking to prevent recurrences.  Once these exercises are no longer challenging, progression is needed.  Future articles will address proper progressions.

Abdominal Bracing

Begin lying on your back with the hips and knees bent.  Find a neutral spine position by gently rocking your pelvis back and forth.  Your neutral position is somewhere between a fully arched and fully flattened position.  In your neutral position, you should be able to hold a small grape under your low back without crushing it.  Maintain a neutral spine and gently contract your abdominal muscles in the front and sides continuing 360 degrees around to the low back.  This muscle contraction should be gentle and no movement should occur.

Once a neutral spine can be maintained with gentle bracing, breathing is added.  Diaphragmatic breathing is performed while maintaining a neutral spine and gentle bracing.  This involves expanding through the belly and rib cage in a 360-degree fashion.  Minimal or no movement occurs in the upper chest and shoulders.  Five deep slow breathes are performed while maintaining a neutral spine and bracing.  No breath holding or movement of the spine should occur.  It is helpful to place one hand on the abdomen and the other hand on the chest to ensure a proper breathing pattern is maintained.   This exercise forms the foundation for all subsequent abdominal exercise progression to follow.

Bent Knee Fall Out

The bent knee fall out is performed after abdominal bracing and diaphragmatic breathing have been mastered.  Begin with a neutral spine, bracing, and diaphragmatic breathing.   Lower one knee to the side towards the floor in a slow and controlled fashion.  No movement in the spine or hips should occur.  It is helpful to place the hands on the hip bones to ensure no movement is taking place.  With each repetition alternate sides.  To increase the challenges add a resistance band around the thighs.  Perform 10 slow repetitions on each side.

90/90 March

This exercise begins with a neutral spine, bracing, and diaphragmatic breathing.   Elevate the legs so the hips and knees are at right angles.  Maintain a neutral spine, bracing, and proper breathing as you slowly alternate lowering the heels to the floor.  Gently touch the heel to the floor without relaxing.   Perform 10 slow repetitions on each side.

Heel Hover

Begin with a neutral spine, bracing, and diaphragmatic breathing.   Elevate the legs so the hips and knees are at right angles.  Maintain a neutral spine, bracing, and proper breathing as you slowly alternate extending of the knee so one leg straightens without touching down.  As you lower the legs, it is important that the low back does not arch away from the floor.  Perform 10 slow repetitions on each side.

Double Leg Lift

Begin with a neutral spine, bracing, and diaphragmatic breathing.   Both knees and feet are then simultaneously elevated so the hips and knees are at right angles.  Maintain a neutral spine, bracing, and proper breathing as you slowly lower the legs together.  Do not touch down or relax the feet to the floor.  It is important that the low back does not arch away from the floor.  Perform 10 to 20 slow repetitions on each side.  To increase the challenges add a small ball to squeeze between the thighs.

Closing Thoughts on Abdominal Exercise for Low Back Pain

Pain interferes with how our brain transmits signals to our muscles.  This is especially important when your low back pain has persisted for more than several weeks.  These 5 abdominal exercises re-program the lost connections between the brain and core muscles.  Slow coordinated and controlled movements are crucial for success.  Absolutely no holding of the breath should occur.  Breathe holding increases tension throughout the body and interferes with retraining of the muscles and nervous system.   Practice these exercises, master them, and improve your endurance by increasing repetitions.   Once these goals are achieved, you are ready to build strength and resilience with more challenging exercises.

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5 Thoracic Mobilization Drills to Improve Overhead Mobility

The position and mobility of the thoracic spine directly affects the amount of overhead shoulder movement available.   A more erect and mobile thoracic spine and rib cage will result in greater overhead range of motion.  A slouched posture or stiffness in the thoracic spine and rib cage will result in a loss of range of motion reaching overhead.   Excessive thoracic kyphosis, or a slouched posture, may alter the position of the shoulder blade and impair muscle activation patterns both of which contribute to limited overhead function and shoulder pain.

Approximately 15 degrees of thoracic spine extension mobility is required for full overhead motion when lifting both arms such as when performing a barbell overhead press. Full 1-arm elevation requires approximately 9 degrees of thoracic extension.  Thoracic spine rotation is also crucial for rotational sports such as baseball where a large amount of power is transferred through the trunk.   A baseball pitcher who lacks thoracic spine rotation will compensate by increasing movement and stress through the shoulder and elbow joints.

Strength is foundational for optimal shoulder health but thoracic spine mobility is often a neglected area when athletes attempt to maximize their overhead shoulder function.  Therefore, exercises targeting thoracic spine extension and rotation mobility should be included in any rehabilitation or performance enhancement program seeking to optimize shoulder function.  Instead of jumping to restore shoulder mobility with bands and balls, try these thoracic spine mobility exercises first.

Bench T-Spine Mobilization

This is my favorite exercise for restoring thoracic spine extension.  It also provides a nice stretch to the lattisimus dorsi muscle which can also limit overhead mobility. The exercise begins by assuming a kneeling position facing a bench.  Place your elbows on the bench in front of you holding a PVC pipe or dowel with the palms facing up.  Sit back, pushing your buttocks towards your heels, keeping your spine relaxed, until you feel a stretch in your upper back.  For an added stretch you can bend your elbows further past your head.  Hold this position, and exhale fully.  Reverse the motion to return to the start and repeat the desired number of repetitions.

Thoracic Extension + Rotation (Reach Backs)

Begin this exercise by sitting back on your heels, face down, with one hand behind your head and the opposite forearm resting on the ground in front of you.  This position minimizes available movement in the low back and maximizes movement to the upper back.   From this position rotate your elbow up to the sky while exhaling.   The opposite forearm remains in contact with the ground.  Return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of repetitions before switching to the opposite side.

Foam Roll Thoracic Extension Mobilization

This exercise can be a challenge to perform correctly.  Most end up extending through the lumbar spine and not the thoracic spine.  Begin in a lying position over a foam roll.  Place the hands behind the neck supporting, but not pulling on, the neck.  Raise the buttocks off the ground and roll the upper back up and down the foam roll.  Identify a sensitive, stiff, or tender area and then drop the buttocks down to the ground.  From this position perform small extension movements by lifting the elbows up towards the ceiling.  Be careful not to overextend at the lower back.

Thoracic Spine Windmill

This is my “go to” exercise to restore thoracic spine rotation.  Begin on your side with both arms outstretched in front of you.  Place a foam roll under your top leg with the knee and hip bent to 90 degrees.  The bottom knee and hip remain extended throughout the exercise.   Reach forward with your top hand and then complete a large circular windmill motion as you rotate your entire upper body.  Keep reaching as if you were attempting to lengthen your entire arm.  Follow your hand with your eyes to ensure proper thoracic spine and rib cage movement.  The top knee and leg should remain in contact with the foam roll throughout the exercise.  Perform the desired number of repetitions and then repeat on the opposite side.

Standing Thoracic Rotation Mobilization

The standing rotation exercise is ideal to incorporate into a pre-workout dynamic warm-up.  From a standing semi-squat position place one arm between your thighs just above the knees.  This position will block unwanted hip and pelvic movement.  Next, rotate the body upwards towards the sky by following your open hand with your eyes.  At the top of the movement, exhale before returning to the starting position.  Perform the desired number of reps and then repeat on the opposite side.

Closing Thoughts

After performing these mobility drills it is important to work on strength and endurance of the thoracic muscles.  Also, manual therapy to the thoracic spine and rib cage has been shown to accelerate recovery and reduce shoulder pain immediately and for up to 1 year.  Maintaining or improving thoracic spine mobility is imperative for any active individual who regularly functions overhead.  Manual therapy, mobility drills, and strength/endurance exercise targeting the thoracic spine can lead to significant gains in overhead function for athletes and the general population.  These 5 mobility drills can be easily integrated into any pre-workout warm-up routine or as part of a home exercise program.