Your body’s core is a complex system of muscles that extend far beyond the abdominal muscles — and include even your arms and legs. In fact, your core is involved in nearly every movement of your body.
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More than 31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time. To avoid back issues, prevention is key. There are numerous exercises that work your core, but the key is to strengthen the stabilizing muscles while placing the least amount of stress on the discs, joints, and ligaments of the spine.
Brian Mock, PT, DPT, facility director at UPMC Centers for Rehab Services’ location at the UPMC Outpatient Center-Wexford, explains three core-strengthening exercises shown to increase core stability and reduce stress on the low back.
“While performing these exercises, it is important to maintain a neutral core and work on perfecting the movement to put the least amount of strain on your back,” says Brian.
“These exercises form a basic program for rehabilitation and maintenance of low back health.”
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Core Exercises for Low Back Pain
Dying/dead bug exercise
To perform this exercise, lie flat on your back on a mat with your knees bent and your arms at your sides. Then raise both legs and arms up toward the ceiling to mimic a dying bug. This will activate your core and work the front of your abs.
- From the dying bug position, move your right arm to the floor above your head and your left leg down to the floor at the same time.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat the move, lowering your left arm to the floor above your head and move your right leg to the floor at the same time.
- Do these movements in tandem so one arm and the opposite leg are on the floor, and then up in the air, at the same time. Keep your head on the mat, and don’t arch or curl your low back.
- Start with 10 to 15 repetitions per side and gradually work up to 20 to 25 repetitions.
Side plank (moderate level)
While lying on a mat on your left side, prop your torso up on your left arm.
- To perform this moderate-level plank, lift your hips off the mat and forward. Be sure that your knees, hips, and shoulder are in a line.
- Hold for eight seconds and then bring your hips back down to the mat. This exercise increases core stability while incorporating shoulder and scapular strength.
- Start by doing two repetitions at eight seconds each. Gradually work up to five repetitions at eight to 10 seconds each.
- Turn on your right side and repeat the steps.
Bird dog exercise
Start on your hands and knees with a neutral spine. You’ll use the erector muscles in your back, the posterior chain of muscles across the hips, and the gluteus muscles, the three muscles that form the buttocks. This exercise encourages proper posture while incorporating neck, gluteus and shoulder stability.
Always use proper form. If you’re unaware of where your neutral spine should be, do a few “cat, cow” exercises to find your midway point, or the neutral spine position. The cat exercise involves arching your back and lowering your head while on your hands and knees. The cow exercise involves raising your head and lowering your spine toward the floor. Do these two movements a few times to find a comfortable, midway spot in your spine.
The neutral spine position helps you focus on the deep muscles of the spine during the bird dog exercise. Set your shoulder blades down and back, keep your neck long, and your chin up toward the ceiling.
- Keeping your back and spine in the neutral position, straighten your right leg back, with your toes pointed down. Raise your left arm out in front of your head. Hold that position for eight to 10 seconds.
- Lower your arm and leg to the mat.
- Switch sides, straightening your left leg back, with your toes pointed down. Raise your right arm out in front of your head. Hold for eight to 10 seconds.
- Start by doing four to five repetitions on each side. As you build endurance, you can move up to eight to 10 repetitions per side.
“These core strengthening exercises help build flexibility and endurance, and enhance stability,” explains Brian. “They challenge your muscles but are executed in a way that minimizes the risk of injury.
“Always be sure to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise regimen.”
The UPMC Rehabilitation Institute offers inpatient, outpatient, and transitional rehabilitation, as well as outpatient physician services so that care is available to meet the needs of our patients at each phase of the recovery process. Renowned physiatrists from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, as well as highly trained physical, occupational, and speech therapists, provide individualized care in 12 inpatient units within acute care hospitals and over 80 outpatient locations close to home and work.