Most people think six-pack abs when they hear the term “core,” but it actually encompasses much more than just your stomach muscles. In fact, one of the biggest aspects of core strength is your lower back, also known as your lumbar spine.
Unfortunately, an emphasis on abs leads to many people’s lower backs being weak, and that’s a recipe for injury and disability. Worse than that, many people don’t do anything for their core at all, leaving their whole trunk weakened. In that condition, if you try to lift something heavy, you may risk a bulging disc or something worse.
To avoid this, you should take a two-pronged approach to keep your lower back safe. First, always use good technique when lifting anything, especially heavy, awkward objects like furniture or big boxes. Second, start—or continue—a strengthening regimen for your whole core, not just your abs.
Lift With Your Legs
First thing’s first: Never lift with just your back, and here’s why:
The legs are where you’ll find some of the strongest muscles of the body—specifically, the quadriceps (front of the thighs) and the hamstrings (back of the thighs). Your back also has strong muscles, such as the latissimus dorsi and the trapezius, but those are located in your upper back. In your lower back, it’s just the small muscles like the erector spinae. These important muscles are there to stabilize your spine, not to bear a load. Your leg muscles, however? That’s what they’re made for! All day long, they carry and move your full weight.
Therefore, the correct way to lift anything heavy is to first use your legs. The ideal way to do so is to get your center of gravity under the object’s center of gravity, but that might not be feasible if the object is something you can’t lift over your head. Regardless, your first step is to bend at the legs and, keeping your back straight and steady (engage those erector spinae!), straighten your legs. You’ll want to keep the object as close to you as possible, since anything held out in front of you will feel heavier than it really is due to gravity and physics.
Keep Your Spine Aligned
Your spine is not straight, but that’s ok—it’s not supposed to be. Your lumbar spine curves in toward your belly button. This curvature is known as lordosis. Your cervical spine also has a slight lordosis, while your middle back bows outward (kyphosis).
To keep your back straight, be aware of and try to keep the natural curvature of the spine. When lifting something heavy, many people tend to bow their lower back out. That’s bad for your spine and can cause back pain. Some people may also overcompensate and arch their lower back inward too much. That’s also unhealthy. Proper posture and lifting techniques requires a neutral spine that follows its natural curvature as much as possible.
Core Strength is More Strength
Now that you know how to lift something heavy (and how not to lift it), let’s talk about strengthening your core. You already know that your core is more than your abs—you’ll also have to strengthen the lumbar region.
Two of the best exercises to do this are weighted squats and deadlifts. There are at least two pervasive myths about these two exercises: that they’re inherently bad for your back, and that they’re primarily leg exercises. Neither is strictly true. While weighted squats and deadlifts can lead to injury if performed incorrectly, they are safe and effective when used with good form. It is best to get advice from an experienced coach or trainer when you are learning these movements.
Secondly, while weighted squats and deadlifts are some of the best exercises for developing lower body strength, they are also very effective in developing core strength. Why? Bracing. When lifting—especially lifting something heavy—it’s necessary to really tighten your whole core to move the weight and help avoid injury.
It is incredibly important to get proper training from a trained professional. Look for a trainer or coach who has an American Council on Exercise (ACE) or National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certification. And, check your ego. Never sacrifice good form for lifting heavier weights. I have had far too many patients who have hurt themselves doing these exercises with poor form and with heavier loads than they can safely handle.
Done correctly, squats and deadlifts can be the cornerstone of your fitness program and your prescription for a strong, healthy core and lower back. Done incorrectly, they could sideline you for weeks or even months.
If the thought of squats and deadlifts makes you nervous, or if you do not have the proper equipment to perform them safely, then not to worry—you still have options. One of the safest and most effective exercises for whole core strength is the plank. It works the whole torso, including the frontal abdominal muscles, the side abdominal muscles (obliques) and the lower back. And, it carries nearly no risk of injury.
To perform, get into the top of a pushup position and lower yourself down to your forearms. Squeeze your stomach muscles and hold the position for as long as you can. Repeat three to five times.
Want more? Take a look at this lower back stretching and core strengthening program. It details how to stretch the muscles around your lower back and some exercises for your core, as well as what exercises and activities to avoid. Following this program is a great start in keeping your lower back strong, healthy and free of pain.
If you are experiencing lower back pain, I can help. Request an appointment with me or one of my colleagues to discuss your treatment options.