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
SteadyHealth.com. “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”
Spine-Health.com. “Good Posture Helps Reduce Back Pain”
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