Planks, crunches, sit-ups and other core strengthening exercises are commonly touted as a cure for back pain. But how true is it? In this article, we look at how core strengthening has gained popularity, and what it can do for back pain.
What is the ‘core’ and why is it important?
The core muscles are those through the body’s centre, which help to brace the spine during movement. They include the abdominal muscles, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and spinal muscles.
In several studies from the 1990s, researchers looked at how quickly core muscles contracted during movement. They found thatpeople with low back pain had a delayed contraction compared to healthy people.
Researchers concluded that this delay could mean a lack of support for the spine during movement, stressing the spine and causing pain.
This idea kickstarted the concept of core strengthening to counteract back pain.
And many people would agree that strengthening exercises have helped their pain. But, before you adopt a plank position, let’s consider how well the evidence stacks up.
Core strengthening for back pain
While it’s true that the core muscles support the spine, they don’t require a lot of strength to do it. The issue is in the coordination of muscle contractions throughout the whole system.
The core muscles are vital to managing pressure inside the abdomen. Bracing these muscles may provide stiffness and support to the spine, but it also stops us breathing, urinating, talking, and more.
The core muscles need to act in smooth unison during movement to provide support, whilst permitting flexibility and maintaining an appropriate balance of intra-abdominal pressure. That way, we can still talk while we walk!
Therefore, exercises that incorporate breathing and compound movements will rehabilitate core muscles to full function more efficiently than exercises that strengthen muscles in isolation.
A specialist in Corrective Exercise or Yoga Therapy can build a programme that improves strength, flexibility and control. A therapist knows how to tailor the programme to ensure you remain safe while progressing towards full fitness.
Should you do core strengthening exercises?
You may think, then, that core strengthening for back pain is a waste of time.
Yet, people often report feeling better when they take up these exercises. So what’s going on?
- Exercise is good. All the evidence tells us that exercise is a huge benefit to people with chronic low back pain. So if crunching your way to a six-pack appeals, go for it!
- It has postural benefits. Exercises that require balance, strength and coordination can counteract the slump of daily life. And improving your posture can reduce the mechanical demands on your back.
- It improves body confidence. And that doesn’t just mean how you look in the mirror! Strengthening your body can make you feel more confident and capable in what you can do. For many people, this means they feel able to take up other activities or sports, with all the mental and physical benefits that brings.
- It has other health advantages.Beyond back pain, core strengthening has other boons. Recent research has shown that isometric exercises (where you work muscles without moving, such as the plank or wall sit), are great for reducing blood pressure. In fact, they’re more effective than cardio or high intensity interval training (HIIT), although combining different types of exercise has the best overall outcome.
Exercise is one of the best ways to tackle back pain. And core strengthening exercises have a useful role to play for back pain sufferers, as well as offering other health benefits.
But a programme of exercise that incorporates functional movements with breathing techniques is likely to be most effective against back pain.
If you’re struggling with back pain, our team of qualified therapists is here to help. Our multidisciplinary approach includes Corrective Exercise, Osteopathy, Yoga Therapy and Massage. Get in touch to find out more, or book online with one of our experts.