Little back muscles that should …

wk supine It was a fairly small move the client and I were doing – lying on the floor face-up with knees bent, gently arching and then curving our lower backs.

My client was having some trouble, finding this awkward, even frustrating. Those of you who have been doing this “pelvic tilt” thing for a while might recall how elusive it was for you at the beginning.

“Why am I doing this?” she asked, which in this case was code for “Not liking this, is it really necessary?”

I gave a brief reply about how lots of little muscles connect your vertebrae, and we are “waking them up so that your spine can move well.” 

This unsatisfying response was just barely enough to keep her going. And of course there’s much more to this concept, which anyone with a back needs to understand.

So here we go.

Stop thinking Back versus Front

Let’s begin by acknowledging that we’re talking about the spine. In other words, what you think of as your “back” is a particular region of your spine. And your spine not only spans more than half your body, but – as the container for your central nervous system – it influences virtually everything. 

A key point here is: Your “back” is not separate from any other part of your body. In fact, it constitutes your foundation, and it is arguably the most important aspect of your body to stabilize, mobilize and strengthen. 

If you have low back pain, it’s usually related to something happening in the lower – or lumbar – part of your spine and/or the attached and surrounding structures, such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves and fascia. 

multifidi2Meet your multifidi

You’ve probably heard of your psoas (pronounced “so – AZ”) and diaphragm. These larger muscles happen to attach to the lumbar spine, along with others I’ll cover another time. 

But have you heard of the multifidus or spinalis muscles? These are some of the smaller stabilizers that connect one vertebra to the next, all along your spine. Through their connection with other muscles and fascia, they also connect your spine to other parts of your skeleton. Many studies have connected low back pain with weak, under-recruited multifidi.

Little muscles = behind-the-scenes staff support 

We’ve all seen muscle illustrations, either on the wall of a medical office or online, in which we can see the larger muscles of the body – the ones that are more superficial, just beneath the skin. What you don’t usually see are the smaller ones that sit closer to the center of our bodies and are designed to perform the first act of stabilizing our movements. And because you aren’t even aware that these little muscles exist, you don’t know how to make them work. 

large back musclesBig muscles = overachieving enablers 

If your small stabilizers haven’t been trained to work, your body has brilliant ways of overcoming that. The big muscles simply take over and get the job done – whatever “the job” is for you. This can work for quite a long time, but the longer those big guns over-perform to the exclusion of their supporting cast, the higher your risk for injury. One day, when you least expect it, often in some sudden move, your body will rely on the big muscles to do something (lift a heavy box, drag a bag of mulch, transfer a suitcase) and the little ones won’t be ready or able to keep up. And there you are at the doctor or chiropractor, wondering how your back “went out.”

Compounding this problem is that the exercises you need to do for spinal stabilization aren’t as exciting as, say, downhill skiing or power lifting or playing sports or dancing in a zumba class. Nobody wants to do them. 

But if you want a back that works well and doesn’t hurt, you gotta do them. Period. 

The good news is: Once you’ve developed proficiency in stabilizing, and you’ve improved the automatic mechanics of your low back, you don’t need to do the stabilization exercises as often as when you began. But the initial investment is crucial. 

Here’s the pelvic tilt I referenced earlier. I searched the web for a good link to spinal stabilization exercises and did not find one I really liked that’s written for lay folks. If you can stand the technical talk, here’s an article from one of my favorite authorities on the topic, and it includes some exercises.  

But I’m compelled to emphasize that the precise execution of stabilization exercises is key to making them effective. So if you’re not sure whether you’re doing them right, it’s worth getting professional instruction – preferably from someone who knows the multifidi. 

Coincidentally, I’m running some Back Support Workshops you can check out here.   😉 

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