Training This Muscle Can Help You Avoid Lower Back Pain

Training This Muscle Can Help You Avoid Lower Back Pain

(Last Updated On: April 5, 2019)


Training This Muscle Can Help You Avoid Lower Back Pain

What could be more inconvenient than lower back pain? If you have an acute back injury or, worse, chronic recurrent, back pain, you’re in good company. More than 80% of men and women experience significant back pain at some point in their lives, and for some unfortunate folks, it’s an ongoing problem that never completely goes away.

One of the best practices for preventing back pain is to resistance train. By training with weights or resistance bands, you strengthen the muscles that support the deeper structures in your spine. Plus, this type of training also improves your posture, thereby making you less susceptible to back problems due to poor alignment. There’s even evidence that chronic, poor posture can change the anatomy of your spine.

Although weight training, done properly, can lower your risk of back pain and injury, most people focus on training the big, superficial muscles in the back – the latissimus dorsi and the erector spinae. You want these muscles to be strong and defined but not at the expense of smaller, deeper muscles in your back called stabilizers.

The Role of Stabilizers 

The muscles that stabilize your lower back include the multifidus, transverse abdominus, and the quadratus lumborum. Unlike the bigger, more superficial muscles in your back, stabilizers don’t actually move. Instead, they contract isometrically when the larger, more superficial muscles in your back contract.

Of the stabilizing muscles in your back, the multifidus muscles play the strongest role in supporting your spine. These muscles lie just over the top of the spine and beneath the erector spinae muscles. These small but powerful muscles extend from the base of the spine, in the sacral region, to the bottom of your neck. Studies show dysfunction in these muscles in the lower back or lumbar region is a factor in lower back pain.

The multifidus muscles help to take the pressure off the discs in your spine. You activate these stabilizing muscles when you twist your body, bend backward, or to the side. In fact, you unconsciously call these muscles into action before you even move to protect your spine. Unfortunately, they don’t always get the attention they deserve when you weight train. Studies show that people who have lower back pain have less activity in these muscles.

Training the Multifidus 

To prevent lower back pain, you want your multifidus muscles to be engaged and capable of doing their job. These muscles help your spine twist or rotate and provide support for injury prevention. What they do best is contract isometrically. You need for them to be able to hold a contraction for sustained periods of time to support your spine when you move or twist. So, the multifidus muscles should be fatigue resistant. To give them more resistance to fatigue, they’re composed mainly of slow-twitch, or type 1 fibers.

So what do the multifidus muscles have to do with back pain? When these muscles are weak, the larger, more superficial muscles in your back that are composed of mostly type 2 fibers take up the slack. That’s a problem since these muscles don’t have the fatigue resistance that the multifidus muscles with their type 1 fibers do. They simply aren’t designed to keep your spine stable as you go about your daily activities. When you have weak multifidus, you force the superficial muscles in your back, like your erector spinae and latissimus dorsi, to work harder. When these muscles are overworked, they become tight and spasm – and you suffer from back pain. So, lower back pain is often due to weak multifidus muscles that force your superficial back muscles to work too hard.

Training Your Multifidus Muscles To Prevent Lower Back Pain

Now you know why you have to train the multifidus muscles, the primary stabilizers of your spine – so how do you do that? Remember, these muscles are made of mostly type 1 fatigue-resistant fibers that don’t generate a great deal of force. The way to do this is to fatigue your type 2 muscles and force your deeper stabilizers, with their abundance of type 1 fibers, to take over. This will make them stronger and more resistant to fatigue, so the bigger muscles in your back get a much-needed rest.

One of the best exercises for strengthening your multifidus muscles is the “bird dog” exercise. You may already be familiar with this one. To do it, get down on all fours on the mat. Extend one hand out along with the opposite leg. Hold the arm and leg in the air for as long as you can. You’ll notice that you start to feel fatigued after about 30 seconds and may begin to feel unsteady. That happens as your superficial back muscles tire out. At this point, your multifidus and deep stabilizers take over.  By holding the position as long as you can after you feel fatigued, you’ll strengthen these muscles and give the muscles greater endurance. Then, switch the arm and leg you extend to the opposite side and repeat.

Another effective exercise that targets the multifidus is the superman. You’re probably already familiar with this exercise. To do it, lie face down on the mat. Lift your legs, arms, and chest off the floor and hold for 3 seconds. Then, slowly lower your body back down to the mat. Exhale as you lift and inhale as you lower your body. Do 3 sets of 12. Don’t forget to warm up beforehand and stretch your back afterward. If you have active back pain, ask your doctor before doing an exercise like the superman.

The Bottom Line

Keep training the superficial muscles in your back but don’t ignore the deeper stabilizing muscles, like the multifidus, that protect against back injury. These muscles are often weak and lack endurance in people who have lower back pain. It’s better to prevent injury than to suffer the consequences of having to deal with one. Make sure your workout is balanced and recruits the stabilizing muscles as well as the more superficial ones


References: “Understanding So-Called Stabilizer Muscles

PM&R. 2 (2): 142–6. doi:10.1016/j.pmrj.2009.11.006. PMID 20193941

Core Concepts. “Multifidus – Smallest Yet Most Powerful Muscle”

OnFitness. May/June 2012. “Lower Back Pain”

Physiopedia. “Exercises for Lumbar Instability” “Good Posture Helps Reduce Back Pain”


Related Articles By Cathe:

Regional Muscle Hypertrophy: What is It and Can It Impact Your Workout?

5 “Old Age” Conditions That Strength Training Helps With

How the Female Spine Changes with Age and Why It Matters

Can Weight Training Ease Lower Back Pain?

4 Ways to Protect Your Back and Spine When You Lift


2 thoughts on “Training This Muscle Can Help You Avoid Lower Back Pain

  1. Hi Cathe, and all you that suffer from horrible lower back pain!! I am so disabled, that I have inoperable back pain. While I was having a C-Section on my birth of my second child, my daughter, Kaiser was supposed to give me an epidural. The anesthesiologist DID NOT KNOW HOW TO DO AN EPIDURAL!! There was a big fight, with me on the OR table, but they gave me Versed, a tranquilizer, to knock me out. Unfortunately everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The anesthesiologist PIERCED my SPINE, and I ended up with major spinal injury. I was blessed by God to not be paralyzed. Anyway, about 9 months ago, sick of all the severe pain and screaming in the middle of the night from pain, I had just turned on the dishwasher. I suddenly realized the dishwasher had a beat to it. I planted both feet firmly on the floor, shoulder length apart, stood up as tall as I could, and brought out both of my arms bent with fists. I then began to twist with the beat of the dishwasher, making tiny 1/2 second stops, as I twisted from side to side. I engaged ALL my CORE MUSCLES while doing this ‘Dishwasher Twist’ move. I know it sounds silly, but it ACTUALLY WORKED!!! The micro second pauses, and holding your body completely still and engaging ALL YOUR CORE MUSCLES is a MUST to this move!! All most all dishwashers have this beat to it, and somehow it is perfect for this move. I have all kinds of pain medications, and I HAVE NEVER had any back pain from doing this move!! I also have micro vertebral fractures in my neck and bone spurs on the right side, which make the pain refer to my biceps, triceps, and all the way down to the wrists, and sometimes the fingers on right side, making it impossible for me to even write or use the mouse on the computer. This ‘Dishwasher Twist’ move, I have now understood. It uses the small multfidus muscles!! I have always been poor at mat core work, but the ‘Bird Dog’ exercise has NEVER been hard for me. As off balance that my body is, I could do ‘Bird Dogs’ ALL DAY!! Anyway, Cathe, maybe you have a name for my ‘Dishwasher Twist’ move, but it definitely is about the only safe exercise I can do, as well as the ‘Bird Dog’ move. I would love to share my ‘Dishwasher Twist’ move with all of those who suffer, like I do. I have been on Pain Management for about 9 years, now, and I would do ANYTHING to be able to work out with ALL your videos that I have. Sadly, I still buy them, but just sit in bed and watch them. I used to work out 2 HOURS a DAY with your fabulous workouts!!! In fact, my spinal injury took TEN YEARS before I had to stop all working out!! I owe that long delay to continuing to work out with YOUR DVDS!! You gave me 10 EXTRA YEARS of working out, and I can’t thank you enough. Sadly, I’m not doing to well, now. But I’m still waiting for a miracle to be able to do small workouts, and to be able to cut back on pain medication. I still read ALL of your emails, and as a former RN, I truly know how educated you are and how much time and education you put into your emails with all the foot notes from top rated medical journals. There are NO well trained and educated athletes on the PLANET, as you are!! Ironically, I took anatomy & physiology for 2 semesters, and I had never heard of the multifidus muscles, until I read this very important piece of work that you wrote about. Chronic pain is no joke; it causes serious depression, from lack of exercise and the production of ‘well being’ hormones that make us happy, naturally. It leads to bone break done, muscle atrophy, and poor circulation problems all over the body. Thank you, Cathe!! I am still waiting for my miracle, just to be able to workout, again. Your fan for life, Glori

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