Despite the ever-growing array of equipment that promises to build ‘six-pack’ abdominals and defined back muscles, the typical person does not do not enough back exercise and abdominal exercise, either in everyday activities or even in exercise sessions.
That is unfortunate, because the back muscles and abdominal muscles, sometimes referred to as core muscles, tend to weaken with age unless specifically exercised.
More importantly, strong back and abdominal muscles can help heal most types of back pain, especially the most common form of back pain caused by soft tissue injury or back muscle strain. Consequently, exercises that strengthens these core muscles should be a part of a balanced back/abdominal exercise program.
The Back Muscles and Abs: Roles and Responsibilities
The bones of the spine provide the supporting frame for the back. Connected to this frame is an intricate system of muscles and ligaments that increase the strength and stability of the spine, arms and legs.
The abdominal muscles and back muscles are key components of this muscular network, and provide the strength to keep the body upright and for movement. When these core muscles are in poor condition, additional stress is applied to the spine as it supports the body, and back injury or back pain is more likely.
Goals of Back and Abdominal Exercise
Different abdominal and back exercises focus on the muscles that support the spine, which are grouped in three categories:
- Extensors (back and gluteal muscles). These muscles are used to straighten the back (stand), lift and extend, and abduct the hip (move the thigh away from the body).
- Flexors (abdominal and iliopsoas muscles). These muscles are used to bend and support the spine from the front. The flexors also control the arch of the lumbar (lower) spine, and flex and adduct the hip (move the thigh in toward the body).
- Obliques or Rotators (paraspinal (side) muscles). These muscles are used to stabilize the spine when upright. The obliques also rotate the spine and help maintain proper posture and spinal curvature.
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Some of the body’s core muscles are exercised in everyday life. For example, the gluteals are used during walking or climbing steps.
However, working most of the stomach and back muscles is more difficult, and requires a conscious approach to targeting them for stretching and strengthening.
Without specific back and abdominal exercises to target these muscles, they will naturally weaken over time, increasing the chance of developing or worsening back pain.
Benefits of Back and Abdominal Exercise
Weak and/or overly tight supporting muscles can have painful spasms and suffer injuries themselves, which then prevent them from supporting the spine as needed. Compromised muscles can also lead to problems with bone structure of the spine due to poor posture from the weak muscles, thereby creating an increased risk of back pain or back injury.
Consequently, developing combined strength in stomach muscles and back muscles can:
- Reduce the likelihood of back pain episodes
- Reduce the severity of back pain
- Protect against injury by responding efficiently to stresses
- Help avoid back surgery in some cases
- Facilitate healing from a back problem or after spine surgery
- Improve posture.