Don't let incorrect exercise technique damage your back

Your exercises might be hurting your back.

That's the warning of Mike Craven, owner of Mike's Olympic Gym in Mechanicsville, Va., who's spent the last 21 years training people on proper body alignment during exercise.

"There's so much misinformation and misinterpretation these days," Craven said.

He's worried that without more education, particularly for young people as they start exercising, there will be more back problems.

"The education alone is what makes a person think before they do something," he said.

Craven is passionate about his mission to educate people. He talks to school and athletic groups whenever possible. As a weightlifting trainer, he's constantly teaching lifters to strengthen their trunks and maintain correct body positions to prevent back problems.

Currently, he's working with Chesterfield County firefighters to reduce their back injuries.

Craven points to three commonly used terms that aren't commonly understood: "neutral back position," "abdominal compression" and "stabilization."

When people think about a neutral back, they often think of a straight back. That's not right. The back has natural curvatures that need to be intact in order to be in the neutral position, Craven said. The curves of the back include the cervical curve, the thoracic curve and the lumbar curve.

And your trunk muscles -- which include abdominals, obliques and lumbar muscles -- need to be strong enough to hold that back in the neutral position for whatever activity you perform, whether it be hoisting a gurney from a burning house or taking a jump shot on a basketball court, Craven said.

Indeed, it's the strength of your midsection that enables you to prevent low-back injuries. In a recommendation on exercises to prevent back pain, The University of Washington's Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Department stated, "The health of the low back depends on the muscular endurance of the core muscles and correct movement patterns."

A neutral spine is characterized by "the natural inward arch of the low back," the sports medicine department continued. "A neutral spine distributes load equally throughout the back. This distribution of load helps to prevent injury and allows for efficient movement."

Another widely misunderstood term that affects back performance is abdominal compression, Craven said. Many exercise programs tout the benefits of pulling the abdominal muscles in tight, thus causing "compression." However, when lifting, people must push the abdominals out slightly in order to keep the back in a neutral position, Craven said.

Exercisers should not shy away from tightening the abdominals with an outward motion when it's needed to keep the back neutral.

The University of Washington's sports medicine experts said exercisers should think of abdominal contracting as "stiffening" or "tightening," not pulling in or pushing out. That way, the abdominals can react in a way that's appropriate to keep a neutral back.

Stabilization is yet another fuzzy buzzword, according to Craven. Usually it refers to a contraction of the abdominal muscles that keeps the trunk stable and helps keep the lower back from arching.

If the trunk muscles aren't strong enough, the back starts to move out of the neutral position. Exercisers need to be aware of this while doing stabilization moves, Craven said. If they can't hold the neutral back, they need to take a break.

Even the most well-meaning exercise programs can include positions that compromise the back, he said. With an estimated 65 million Americans suffering from back pain, Craven said everyone needs to be more aware of the consequences.

"You have to be concerned about what you do."

Hanging from the waist with your shoulders below your hips, for instance, puts your back in a precarious position. Once your shoulders drop below your hips, the nervous system triggers the muscles to shut down, so you're hanging by your ligaments, Craven said.

While that might not cause any immediate injury, it could be harmful over the course of several years, he said.

"The things we know that are wrong, we need to step up to the plate and we need to change," Craven said.

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