Category Archives: spinal health and mobility

back strengthening exercises – understand how muscle balance and exercise affect spinal health

Back Strengthening exercises are an important part of any exercise routine. We encourage our participants to think of back strengthening exercises as important to include in your daily routine as other activities like brushing your teeth for dental hygiene or maintaining a health diet to manage your weight.

Our body consists of muscles, bones and other tissue like the tissue that make up our organs and more. If we didn’t have a skeleton we would be a bag of tissue held together by our skin. The skeleton is like a scaffold, it’s our internal frame.  Each bone connects to other bones usually with a bit of cartilage in between the bones. The bones are held in place by ligaments and tendons that connect to the musculature. Muscles move the bones. For a muscle to be able to move a bone relative to another bone it has to reach across a joint.

When a muscle tightens up, when it’s active, it shortens and thereby it reduces the distance between the two point it’s connected, too. To demonstrate, if you are in a sitting position, straighten your left arm out in front of you with your palm facing upward. Place the right hand on the biceps of the left arm while holding your arm out. Keeping your left arm out, bend your elbow bringing your left hand to your shoulder. The  left lower arm moves towards the upper arm. You can feel the biceps move as it bulks up and in this case shorten, with your right hand. The biceps reaches across the elbow joint and shortens the distance between the lower arm and the upper arm. This movement is called flexion.

For every muscle that shortens/flexes and moves a body part in one direction, there has to be a muscles to do the same to reverse the movement. The reverse movement to flexion is called extension. In the case of your arm, this movement is done by the triceps. We refer to the two muscles as an antagonistic pair, because they work in opposition to each other.

Not all muscles are ‘big movers’ like the biceps. We have muscles that don’t have much movement ability at all, they have merely a static function, they hold. We also have many muscles that work as a team, they work together to allow us to do complex movements. You can for example bend and rotate the elbow and lower arm in one fluid co-ordinated move because there is an entire muscle group involved in the motion.

Looking at the overall body again we have to realise that the skeletal system that is our internal frame is literally strung together by a complex set of pulleys and movers. All these muscles act in opposition to another, an antagonist.

Using another model image, it helps to thing of the upright body much like a mast on a sailing boat. The mast in a boat is usually held up by four strong wires. If you were to cut any one of the ties that ancor the mast to the hull the mast would becomeseriously unstable and possibly fall over.

Let’s look at the human body again.

muscles balance, back strengthening exercises


The main muscles that keep our upper body straight and upright in a standing position are the muscles of the back (erector spinae) that reach across the entire back from the hips to the head. As their antagonists we have the muscles of the abdominal wall and the hip flexors. (There are other muscles affecting a good spinal position and posture for example the muscles in your buttocks and the muscles of you chest. We will deal with those at a later stage).

If one of the muscles involved in holding our body upright is weak or extremely tight and exerting too much of a pull, the balance will be off.

back strengthening exercises, posture, standing, spinal health


Many people who have back problems tend to have weak muscles in the abdominal wall. As a result the pelvis isn’t held upright but it falls forward. The curve in the lower back increases. The muscles in the lower back can be weak too. They can strain and tighten up. The muscles of the hip flexors tend to be the strongest of the set. We use them all the time because we work them when we are walking pulling the thigh up.

For a healthy back it is important to regain and maintain the balance of these muscles. For any back strengthening exercise to be effective you need to also strengthen the abdominal musculature. It is equally important to stretch and thereby lengthen the muscles that are too tight, mainly the hip flexors and the muscles of the lower back. If a person engage in activities or exercises in an upright position that is load bearing (while they are on their feet) without having a healthy muscle balance they can greatly exasperate their back problems. It is therefore essential to strengthen and stretch these muscles on a regular basis.


Back Strengthening Exercises for People with Back Problems

Our Program provides people with a set of back strengthening exercises to help them with their back problems. However for this program to be even more effective we encourage people to know about the cause of their back problem too. It is equally as important as regular back strengthening exercises. When you reduce and avoid the movements habits and bad posture that caused the problems in the first place the back strengthening exercises will be most effective.
Common Causes of Back Problems:
Most people are only aware of one back problem, which is back pain. Some people are aware that posture irregularities or injuries to the back are a back condition, too.
However, a back condition can silently grow or exist, very similar to a heart condition, and not show until substantial damage has manifested itself. Most back problems are created mechanically. They are the result of the bones of the spine (vertebrae) moving out of their optimal, natural position. As the spine creates the link between the central nervous system and all other parts of the body, nerve functions can be damaged or reduced without you feeling something or major pain.
To gain a better understanding, we need to examine the structure and movement ability of the spine in detail. Think of the spine as a structure of segments (vertebrae) with cushions (disks) that protect these segments and allow movement and mobility.
spinal movement and good posture, back strengthening exercises, spinal health and mobility


If the spine is bent in any of its natural possible directions, the disk between two vertebrae acts as cushion that simply allows this movement to take place (see drawing). As we get older there is a natural degeneration in the cushion through wear and tear. Similar to a cushion we sit on, which goes flat over the years, the disk material gradually gives under the pressure of the bones they move and carry. This degeneration leads to increasing stiffness in the joint.

spinal movement and good posture, back strengthening exercises, spinal health and mobility

Bad posture, back damaging work practices and effects of injuries can have a continuously stressing effect increasing the pressure on one or more disks and can dramatically speed up the process of wear and tear. As part of this degenerative process, a vertebrae or disk might start to press on nerve tissue interfering with nerve functions causing pain, tingling sensations etc. Back problems or back pain can also be caused by the continuous tension of a muscle through bad posture, extensive strain or after an injury. The muscle tightens up and goes into a spasm. These tight muscles bulk and can press on nerves passing in and out of the vertebrae creating symptoms such as numbness, tingling and other problems.

In any case, if you experience pain in your back you must consult a doctor and clarify the source of the pain, prior to commencing an exercise class. This is simply necessary because some back pain might be the result of a condition that would require special medical attention (eg. tumours, osteoporosis). Specific and specialised exercise programmes are a key element in treating many conditions associated with back pain. It is always recommended to exercise as a preventative measure simply to maintain or improve health to keep the body in a physically well-toned condition.

In the next post we will examine how the muscles in your back and exercise affects your posture. You will learn what type of back strengthening exercises are the most beneficial for your back problems.