Back pain is the bane of millions, but some simple exercises may help prevent and alleviate those aches and twinges.
These maneuvers don't just target the muscles surrounding the spine -- they hit the abdominal and oblique muscles on the sides of the trunk, as well. Shoring up all the muscles around the back not only makes lifting heavy loads easier -- it also allows for less pain during daily tasks such as gardening, getting in and out of the car or even sitting for hours in front of a computer.
The drills -- including popular ones such as the front plank, side plank and bird dog -- were presented last week at the American College of Sports Medicine's annual Health and Fitness Summit and Exposition in Long Beach by Michael Bracko, a Calgary, Canada-based exercise physiologist. At a group participation session, he demonstrated key exercises -- with modifications for beginning exercisers.
Bracko suggests that beginners start with the modified exercises, then work up to full-strength versions. Advanced exercisers may add weights to some of the drills. Positions should be held, if possible, for 10 to 20 counts, fostering muscle endurance. As your strength and endurance build, your counts can go longer and you can add more repetitions.
Modifications completed in a standing position (for office settings) can be done every day, but the more vigorous versions should be done every other day. Modify or stop the exercise at any sign of pain.
* Front plank (top): Targets the abdominals. Body is horizontal, face down, arms directly underneath the shoulders. Lower arms and toes support the body, and the back is straight. Head is aligned with the spine.
Modification one: Knees and toes are on the floor. Back is straight.
Modification two: Arms are in the same position, but the exercise is done leaning against a wall. Back is straight.
Modification three (advanced): Increase the intensity by moving the elbows forward.
* Side plank (middle): Targets the obliques. Legs are crossed at the ankles, and the body's weight is supported by the feet and one forearm, with the elbow directly underneath the shoulder. The other arm is extended along the side, and the back is straight, with the head in line with the spine. The exercise should be done on both sides.
Modification one: The knees are bent, with the weight supported on the lower legs as well as the arm.
Modification two: Arm is in the same position, but the exercise is done against a wall. Back is straight.
Modification three (advanced): Increase the intensity by moving the elbow forward or holding a dumbbell with the top hand, or both.
* Bird dog (bottom): Targets back muscles from the shoulder to the buttocks. Starting on all fours, with elbows directly underneath shoulders and knees directly below hips, raise one arm in front and the opposite leg in back at the same time, keeping both straight, and the head in line with the spine. Raise and lower leg and arm several times, then switch arm and leg.
Modification one: Do arm and leg raises separately.
Modification two: Do the exercise while leaning against a wall.
Modification three (advanced): Do the exercise with dumbbells or ankle weights, or both.
* Cat-camel (not shown): Targets flexing and extension of abdominal and back muscles. Begin on all fours, with elbows under shoulders and knees below hips. Arch the back into a convex shape, then reverse it into a concave position. Repeat.
Modification: Do the exercise while standing and leaning against a wall, or seated, leaning against a desk.