Everybody would like a strong back, and most people understand the link between exercise and strength. Unfortunately, most people with chronic back pain cannot exercise, precisely because they have back pain.
Even if you are not in pain, the underlying problems in your spine will, almost certainly, prevent you from developing long-term strength. All back pain is accompanied by stiffness and a lack of flexibility, and this stops you from exercising properly.
So, you need to strengthen your back to prevent further injury (and back pain), but you cannot because you have back pain… To break this cycle, you first need to decompress your spine, increase your flexibility, and then strengthen your back (there is no short-term solution).
The rest of this section explains, in more depth, the link between flexibility and strength.
Please read it before attempting any of the individual exercises. It will help you to understand why you need to decompress your spine before you attempt to strengthen your back.
If the spine becomes weak, it is left susceptible to injury and back pain. However, there is not that much strength in the spine itself (it is just a series of bones and discs stacked on top of one another). The real strength comes from the surrounding soft tissue: the muscles.
A strong, healthy back is therefore reliant on strong muscles. But, the muscles themselves are controlled by the nervous system: so, it follows that a healthy back is actually reliant on a healthy nervous system.
The Human Nervous System
The human nervous system is like a tree. It starts with a root (the brain), and has a large trunk (the spinal cord). Branches (or nerves) stem from the trunk at all levels, from the top of the neck to the lower back.
In total, there are 31 nerve pairs that branch off the spinal cord: these keep splitting into successively smaller branches until they reach the muscles. Each nerve (or group of nerves) supplies a different muscle; for example, the nerves that exit from the top of the spine supply the arm and shoulder muscles, whereas those that exit the spine lower down, supply the trunk and leg muscles.
The human nervous system
If you damage your back, the nerve roots (near the spinal cord) are usually, if not always, compressed: this leads to back pain.
However, because the nerves also control the surrounding muscles, back pain is often accompanied by many other symptoms like weak, tight and dysfunctional muscles.
And herein lies the annoying problem. If you damage your back, you need to strengthen your muscles to prevent further injury. But the damage to your back often prevents you from strengthening the muscles!
The Link: Flexibility Comes Before Strength
The way to break this cycle is to decompress your spine before you attempt to strengthen your back. By decompressing your spine, you relieve the pressure on the nerve roots; in turn, this will reduce your back pain, and allow the muscles to function normally again.
As a result of this, the muscles will become healthier and more flexible, and you should be able to strengthen them safely (without injuring yourself). So: FLEXIBILITY COMES BEFORE STRENGTH!
If you have had back pain for a long period of time, your muscles will almost certainly be dysfunctional (usually both weak and tight). However, you must be patient: you can only start to strengthen the deep, stabilising muscles that support your back after you have decompressed your spine fully. Otherwise you run the risk of straining your muscles and/or compromising your back.
To find out how to decompress your spine, please visit our section on the Backrack™.
If you would like to understand the anatomical causes of back pain (in more depth), please visit our section on the Back Anatomy.
To find a list of exercises to strengthen your back (with and without Backrack™), please visit our section on the Advanced Excercises.