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If you’ve ever tweaked your back, you’ve discovered that even a minor back injury will sideline your fitness for weeks. While paying attention to proper exercise form is part of the prevention strategy, there’s more to the story. To avoid this fitness pitfall, you need to train your spine stability — and doing crunches, back extensions, or general lifting are not the answers. Learn why, and learn what exercises to do instead.
How to Train to Protect Your Spine
Low-back pain is the most common injury that stops your active lifestyle, and the top contributors are lurking in your workouts. Top reasons for low-back injury include core muscle fatigue, high training volume (sets, reps, and loads) and repetitive motions.
But before you break up with your favorite exercises, keep reading, because the solution is not eliminating weights and repetitive motions. Instead, the solution lies in learning about your spine, then building its capacity to do all of the workouts you love.
Understanding Where Spine Stability Comes From
Imagine your spine is built like a sailboat. There is a front sail, back sail, mast, and boat. If one part is out of balance, the boat won’t sail well. Now, apply this to your muscles. Your front sail is your abdominal muscles. Your back sail is your back muscles. The boat represents your pelvic floor muscles. The mast is your deep core muscles called multifidi and transverse abdominis.
While your fitness routine probably has exercises to train the hypothetical front and back sails, most fitness routines don’t specifically train the pelvic floor and deep core muscles. If you only rely on the outer abdominal muscles, your back stability will be in a constant state of flux. A solid foundation requires training the deep core and pelvic floor muscles, and these muscles respond best to long-duration, low-load exercises. Low load means you need to lower the weights to target these muscles to their fullest.
Spine stability is not exclusively the muscles’ job. Such stability also relies on ligaments, discs, bones, and the nervous system. We often overlook these spine stability essentials in our fitness routines, too.
Exercises to build your spine stability
Now, how do you target the muscles that improve spine stability?
1. Go for time.
Planks, dead bugs, bears, and bird dogs all target the spine stabilizer muscles. When performing such exercises, consciously engage your core and maintain a straight line from the back of your head to your tailbone.
Aim for duration, gradually working your way up to 1- to 2-minute holds per exercise without any added weights.
2. Train your pelvic floor.
Kegels make a great starting point, but there are plenty more exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor; some also have the added benefit of toning your glutes and thighs! Exercises like plié squats, hip bridges and the adductor machine can all be part of pelvic floor muscle training.
If these exercises are already part of your routine, keep your current sets and reps as you consciously think about pulling your pelvic floor up into your core with each rep. If you can’t feel the muscles engage, you need to lower the weights.
3. Train your ligaments and nervous system.
There are three easy ways to target these commonly overlooked stabilizing essentials.
Single-leg variations: Perform an exercise you already do, like bicep curls or delt raises, while standing on one foot. Lighten the weight compared to your typical load, since standing on one foot decreases your base of support. Select an even number of sets so each supporting leg has an equal number of turns at the exercise.
Stability ball: Use a stability ball for one set of familiar exercises. Great choices include overhead shoulder presses, chest presses, and forearms-on-ball planks. Like standing on one foot, lighten the load to control your form on the ball. When you lighten the load, you can perform more reps. Work on reps to fatigue with proper technique.
Medicine ball: Throw a medicine ball. Medicine ball throws at a rebounder, the floor, or a wall help condition your spine for speed and load. Even better: Catch the ball on the rebound! If medicine ball throws are new to you, start with a ball that is 5% of your body weight.
Since this kind of throwing and catching can be demanding on your muscles, start with 1-3 sets of less than 10 reps. When you throw and catch using two hands at the same time, be sure your shoulders and hips always face the same direction at the same time to avoid twisting your spine.
No medicine ball? No problem! Use your stability ball instead.
Pick at least one exercise from each of the three spine stabilizing exercise categories to include in each workout. Feel free to mix and match for new variations each day.