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Lower Back Pain: The 3 Exercises You Can and Need to Start Today

There is a plethora of information telling people what they can do for their lower back. From the sale of complex back braces and fancy orthopaedic mattresses, to fear motivated exercise avoidance and strong pain relief medication, there are many expensive and complicated approaches to getting much-needed relief.

But suppose you are like me and some of the other four million Australians that have experienced back pain that has impacted their daily life. In that case, you probably want to start with something simple and right away.

Exercise can be a daunting thought when you have pain. But the more substantial the support for your spine is, the less likely the structures of your lower back are to be annoyed and inflamed from day to day activities like prolonged sitting and bending.

If you are seeking a solution that is quick (less than 10 minutes a day), free, requires very little equipment, is appropriate for all levels of fitness and is easy to learn and follow, let me introduce you to the most simple, effective and heavily prescribed combinations of three exercises for lower back pain; McGill’s Big 3.

Dr Stuart McGill’s Big 3

Dr Stuart McGill is a highly celebrated and internationally renowned professor and biomechanist. He has devoted his career to the management of lower back pain. Along the way, this has led him to discern the dos and don’ts for exercise rehabilitation. The McGill Big 3 were the exercises his research demonstrated had the most significant measurable impact on lower back pain, with the lowest aggravation of the spine structures.

The focus of these three exercises is to help the body, primarily the core and trunk, build up a greater level of stability and tolerance to movement. This improves posture, helps us withstand impacts (like running on hard surfaces or being tackled in football), supports the joints in our spine and extends the time we have before our muscles fatigue (e.g. how long we can sit at our desks before pain develops).

Those exercises can be easily adapted to your current fitness and pain status and are quickly completed at home. It is recommended to start with a spinal mobility exercise such as Cat-Camel before starting. This is to help you feel how your body is moving and puts external pressure on the lower back.

So let’s meet the Big 3.

1. The modified Curl-Up

Differing from a traditional sit up, the McGill curl up emphasises protecting the lower back from moving into excessive flexion and reduces the compression force on the spine, one of the significant aggravators of the lumbar spine. This helps us progress this exercise over time and exert ourselves without further injury. This exercise addresses the Anterior (Front) muscles of the trunk and abdominals.

Start lying on a yoga mat or carpeted floor on your back to perform a modified curl up. Bend one knee, so your foot is flat on the floor alongside your other knee (see pictured). Place both hands under your lower back, palms facing the ground. Starting with the head, lift curl your spine vertebrae by vertebrae into a crunch position, keeping the lower back in contact with the environment. Hold the position steady for 10 seconds before slowly lowering back onto the floor. Start with three sets of 10-second holds.

2. Side Plank

The following exercise works on some of the trunk stabilisers’ lateral (side) muscles, such as the obliques and quadratus lumborum. The stronger these are, the more controlled you will be in bending or leaning sideways, and the less these movements are to illicit lower back pain.

Staying on the floor, roll onto one side. Keep your elbow in line with your shoulder and stack your legs on top of each other with the top foot placed in front of the rear. Press off the floor by squeezing your glutes and pushing into your elbow to start the movement. Hold the side plank position for 8-10 seconds for three repetitions. If the exercise is too challenging to balance at the start, feel free to support your lower body from your knees. Start with three sets.

3. Bird Dog

The last exercise is helpful to teach the body how to keep your spine supported and steady whilst your limbs (arms and legs) are moving around. This is important as it replicates some of the day-to-day movements your back will need to withstand, such as reaching for your mousepad, getting a plate out of a cupboard or pushing a vacuum along the living room floor.

Starting from an all-fours position on the floor, line your palms under your shoulder joint and knees under the hips. Hold your spine in a neutral plank position. Keeping the lower back still and not allowing your body to roll to one side, kick out one, e.g. directly behind you. At the same time, raise the opposite arm out to your chin level.

If this is too challenging to start, begin with just arms or legs. Start with three sets of ten.

Try these three exercises for lower back pain today and see how you feel!

Need help with exercises for back pain?

If you’re interested in learning more about exercises specific to your pain and discomfort, and you would like some guidance on how and where to start, then give our team a call today and discuss consultation with our Exercise Physiologist.

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