When it comes to back health, most directives are focused around the spinal column.
“Lift with your legs rather than your back so you don’t rupture or otherwise hurt the discs in your spine.” “Walk with your head up and shoulders back, making it easier for your spinal column to carry your weight more evenly.” “Sit with your back straight and your legs uncrossed, helping your spine maintain proper alignment.”
But one other very important directive for helping a patient achieve a higher level of back health isn’t focused so much on the back, but more toward the midsection as a whole. The muscles in this area are known collectively as the ‘trunk’ or the ‘core.’ Why are they so important?
The importance of a strong core
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) explains that core muscles help “move, support and stabilize your spine.” Bending forward, backward, or to the side—such as when you’re picking up your child or grandchild, or when reaching down to grab something you’ve dropped—for instance, requires the use of core muscles such as trunk flexors and back extensors to give your spine the support it needs to engage in these movements safely.
Other core muscles assist in the actions that require you to rotate your trunk from one side to the other. They are primarily the internal and external obliques and, by keeping them in shape, you’re able to transfer your groceries from the cart to your car, swing a golf club, and tend to your garden more safely because your spine is properly stabilized.
It starts with education
Helping patients realize the role that their core plays in overall back health is the first step to helping them create a stronger support system for their spine. Once they understand why this set of muscles is so critical, it makes it easier for them to make building them a priority because they can clearly see how they affect their movements and motions.
One easy way to do this is by hanging some type of infographic or image on the wall of your office that explains how a strong core helps create a healthy back. Alternatively, you could decide to include this information in your newsletter or monthly email, drawing your patients’ attention to this realization in that way.
If you have a blog on your website, you might also consider writing an article that goes over core strength’s relationship to spinal health. Depending on the patients you typically see with lower levels of core strength, it may also help to develop a pamphlet that you can hand directly to those you feel it could help the most.
There are many ways to educate your patients about the importance of core strength, so be creative. Also, don’t limit yourself to just one or two as having many different education-based options available means that you’ll have a greater likelihood of reaching a larger portion of your patients, appealing to their own individual learning styles.
Strong core strengthening exercises
For those who are ready and willing to heed your advice and work on strengthening their core, they’re likely going to want some direction on how to do that. This involves sharing information as to what type of exercises can work these muscle groups most safely, even showing them the proper way to execute the movements so they use the correct form.
Here are a few to consider:
- Rectus abdominis, or trunk flexors. Since the rectus abdominus muscles extend down the front of the core, one of the most common exercises to work them is the crunch. This exercise can be performed on the floor, on an exercise bench, or on a stability ball.
Another option is the front plank. However, if the patient isn’t used to this particular exercise, he or she should start slowly, only keeping the plank pose for a few seconds at first. This helps reduce the likelihood of injury by stressing or straining the core.
- Erector spinae, or back extensors. These muscles that run down the back of the core can be strengthened by asking the patient to lie face down on a floor or bench and do a set of back extensions.
Erector spinae muscles can also be strengthened by performing squats and deadlifts as, though a majority of the stress is placed on the legs, this muscle group also engages during these two exercises, stabilizing the body for proper movement.
- Internal and external obliques. When working the internal and external obliques, some exercises to consider sharing with patients include bicycle crunches, side crunches, and standing side bends.
Side planks work well for this group of muscles too, as do medicine ball rotational throws, which is where the person stands facing a sturdy wall while holding a medicine ball, then twisting his or her torso to forcefully throw the ball against the wall.
- Transverse abdominis. Planks can strengthen these side abdominal muscles, as can exercises like scissor kicks, supine leg extensions, and glute bridges.
Abdominal hollowing helps build transverse abdominis muscles as well, which is when the individual lies on his or her back and sucks the lower abdomen in, drawing it closer to the floor.
A healthy back begins with a strong core. Helping your patients realize this and giving them actionable steps they can take gets them one step closer to this goal.