Watch your back…while exercising

Watch your back! No, I'm not talking about someone pulling a Judas. Those are my words of wisdom for everyone from the weekend warrior to the elite athlete. Trust me, I speak from experience. For the last 15 years of my life, fitness has been my passion and career.

Last October, I was in pretty good physical condition - or so I thought. I woke up one morning and had to log-roll out of bed. Unsure if I would be able to dress myself, I thought of calling a neighbor for help, but my pride got the best of me. I ended up lurching around like Quasimodo for a few days at home and work until I went to see a doctor. The diagnosis was a bulging disc at L4 and L5. Back pain is no fun and severely limits you. So protect your back.

The lower back is made up of two muscles - the quadratus lumborum and erector spenae. These are not big muscles. In fact, the quadratus lumborum is the bigger muscle, but it is relatively thin compared to muscles of the upper back, like the latissimus dorsi. That's why low back strains are so common. When someone lifts without engaging the core, this small muscle often times is overloaded. The core is made up of the abdominal muscles, external obliques and with the muscles of the low back. These muscles work together to stabilize and protect the spine. That's why fitness trainers often talk about strengthening the core. Exercises like planks, crunches, pikes and back extensions are great for developing core strength. However, a strong core is not a 100 percent guarantee to be back injury free.

One of the most common reasons for back pain or a back injury is an anterior pelvic tilt. An anterior pelvic tilt is when the top part of the pelvis is tilted forward. This makes the glutes stick out more and cause more of a curve to the lower back. When this happens, more pressure is put on the lower vertebra. Contrary to popular belief, tight hamstrings aren't the cause. It is actually tight quadriceps, piriformis and gluteus maximus. Because of each of these muscles' attachment points, when they're tight it pulls the top part of the pelvis forward. Also, the sciatic nerve runs through the piriformis, and when that muscle is tight, it can pinch the nerve causing significant pain. With any tight muscle the solution is stretching. A physical therapist or qualified personal trainer can program and properly demonstrate a series of stretches to address each of these muscles.

With any injury, you should consult your physician before beginning an exercise program. That being said, one of the worst things an individual can do with a back injury is remain sedentary. Case studies show that people who remain active with a back injury report less pain than those who are less active. In closing, remember to protect your back by remaining physically active, strengthening your core and maintaining your flexibility.

Chad Hodson is the fitness manager for the Blount Memorial Wellness Centers.

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