No Planks Necessary: When It Comes to Lower Back Pain, Strength Isn’t Everything

exercises for lower back pain
Terri Night
Written by
Terri Night Physical Therapy

When treating your own lower back pain, pliability, circulation, and joint lubrication are just as important as the ability to generate force with your muscles. Even the way we breathe can have a huge effect on the spine. Learn about the best stretches and exercises for lower back pain. 

Physical therapists and athletic trainers are well versed in ways to strengthen different muscles. You may be told by these professionals that certain muscles need to be stronger to support certain injured joints. If you have strong legs or hips, your knees will be well supported. If you have strong abs or back muscles, your spine will be more “stable.” This is the conventional way we think of exercise: Your spine is a ship mast, supported by ropes and pulleys (muscles). Strengthen the ropes and pulleys and your spine will be better supported. Well, to some degree, this is true. But this is by no means the only reason to do–or way to think of–exercise

Let me state the obvious: Your spine is not a ship mast.

When we think of the spine as a ship mast, it helps us to understand muscles from a mechanical perspective. At the same time, it prevents us from understanding muscles as they really are.

Ropes, pulleys, and ship masts are not alive. Bones, muscles, ligaments, discs, and nerves are. Ropes, pulleys and ship masts do not have a blood supply. Bones, muscles, ligaments, discs, and nerves must have a blood supply to function properly. Without good circulation, none of these structures can function.

To understand muscles, ligaments, discs, bones and nerves, we have to think like a physiologist. Joint lubrication, circulation, and tissue pliability are just as important as force, direction, and torque. Even the way our brain and nerves function play a role in how we move. I’ve treated body builders with excruciating back pain. (It’s not because they’re weak.) And I’ve felt hardly any back pain during some of the most sedentary periods of my life. (I also wasn’t very stressed.)

Just about any type of exercise (especially aerobic exercise), combined with adequate flexibility, stress reduction, breathing exercises, and healthy diet are going to be more effective than focusing on the strength of any specific muscle. Sadly, there is no cure-all exercise or a “secret” muscle to strengthen that will cure everyone’s back pain. The good news is, virtually any type of aerobic exercise you can find that is comfortable and enjoyable to you, when done regularly for 150 minutes per week, will likely be a safer and more productive pursuit toward making your back feel better.

Note: Always consult a physician before beginning any new exercise program or treatment plan, especially exercises for lower back pain. This article is not a substitute for medical evaluation and diagnosis by a physician.

Terri Night
Written by
Terri Night Physical Therapy

Terri Night, PT is the author of Rehab Your Own Spinal Stenosis: strategies to improve the health of your spine. As a licensed physical therapist specializing in back pain, back surgery rehab, and chronic pain management, her presentations have been featured at Physician Grand Rounds for Alta Bates and Summit hospitals, as well as several Bay Area senior centers and health expos. For more information visit rehabspinalstenosis.com.

This article is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice from your physician or health provider for your specific needs.