Back pain and poor posture are something nearly everyone will deal with at some point in their lives.
We are largely sedentary, at least in the West, performing a good deal of our daily tasks parked in front of a computer. Add to that the fact that in the US we spend an average of 3 hours per day on our phones and you have a recipe for hunchbacks.
In this article we will look at some movements that will help counteract the daily wear and tear, and in the end, organize them into a routine you can use daily to get right.
First, a little context.
Upstream and Downstream
Bad posture and back pain is not just about the back itself.
Upstream and downstream areas, such as the hips, psoas, neck, chest, and shoulders all play a roll. We need to address these as well to get things corrected.
In fact, if you suffer from back pain and your posture resembles a question mark, it's very likely this stems from areas other than your back.
Build a Strong Core
Another factor in back pain, especially lower back pain, is a weak core.
I'm not necessarily talking about building the fabled six pack here. It's possible to have visible abs but still have a weak core overall.
We are talking about building the strength of the lumbar musculature as well as the entirety of the midsection. Most people dive into crunches, but never address the transverse abdominis or obliques.
Now that you have some understanding of what we want to address, let's get into some movements that will help you unlock more movement freedom and relieve some pain.
1. Cat Cow Stretch
The cat cow stretch sequence is where I always start. It's a great way to gently wake up your spine, hips, and shoulders and engage your breath.
Start on your hands and knees in a neutral spine position. Breath into your diaphragm, slowly and deeply as you move into the cat position. Your head and eyes will move up, your shoulder blades will pull together.
As you exhale, reverse the position. Your head will drop, your back will round and extend toward the sky, and you will tuck your pelvis underneath.
2. Reverse Table Top
Reverse table top is a great movement to further mobilize the shoulders and wake up the posterior chain. Performing it regularly will help you build a stronger core as well.
I like to perform this movement as an active mobility routine rather than a static hold. I begin with my butt on the ground and press up to reverse table top.
Variations can be added as you get stronger and more mobile.
3. Full Squat Holds
Now that we have gently woken things up and engaged the core, let's address the hips and lower back.
The full squat is a natural resting position for much of the world. It's kind of funny that in the West we now consider this position an "exercise," because for most people in the world, this is just a comfortable place to sit.
It's very simple, squat down, and relax for a while. Add some reaches and folds. Explore areas of the position that make you feel uncomfortable.
If you are not flexible enough to get down into this position, you can hold onto something as you develop the mobility in your hips and ankles.
And don't try to convince yourself you're too old for this movement! It's just not a pattern you are used to holding...yet.
4. Bird Dogs
Bird dogs are a movement that address most of the posterior chain. The nice part about them is they can be scaled if you are just starting out and not very strong yet, and they can be modified to be more challenging as you progress.
To perform them, return to that hands and knees position with a neutral spine. Extend your right arm and left leg out simultaneously. Return to the starting position, then extend the left arm and right leg.
Alternate each time and focus on creating one straight line as much as possible.
5. Planks and Side Planks
When performed well, planks and side planks engage the musculature of the core extremely well. These, just like bird dogs can be scaled up or down depending on your fitness level.
Start in the standard elbows and toes position. Make sure the core is engaged. Hold here for the prescribed time (more on that in a minute).
For side planks, turn one arm in, so your forearm is perpendicular to your body. This arm will be supporting your body weight.
Now rotate so that you open your body and maintain a good, straight line. Hold on one side before changing to the other.
This one is simple. All you have to do is grab a pull up bar, or anything above your head really, and hang from it.
Hanging takes advantage of gravity to allow everything to lengthen. The shoulders get loosened, the upper pecs get stretched, and the spine gets decompressed.
Start with 10 second passive holds and work your way up. You will probably find that your grip fails first if you've never used this practice.
7. Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebell swings are the great posture corrector.
The key here is to do them right (big surprise, right?) A kettlebell swing is a hip hinging movement. Your hips should drive the kettlebell up.
The mistake most beginners make is to bend, straighten, then lift the bell with their shoulders. This is incorrect.
Your shoulders should be down, your shoulder blades should be in a strong neutral position (packed), and your spine should remain neutral.
Putting It All Together - A Daily Practice For A Bulletproof Back
Now let's put all of this together. This daily practice can be performed anytime of day, but I prefer the mornings. I like to start my day with some gentle exercise before things get moving, and I like to keep my intense training for the late afternoon or early evening.
Here's the routine. Perform it daily for 30 days and see what it does for you:
- Cat/Cow stretch - 25 reps each. This should be very fluid as you synchronize your breath.
- Reverse Table Top - 25 reps. Again, this should be very fluid. Breath in as you go up, out as you lower down.
- Full Squat Holds - 1 minute. If you are just starting out, it's OK to hold for a shorter time. These holds will recur throughout the routine.
- Bird Dogs - 12 reps each side.
- Full Squat Holds - 1 minute. If you didn't do the full minute in the first hold, try to add 5 seconds.
- Planks and Side Planks - 30 seconds each. Start in the standard plank for 30 seconds, choose a side, and switch. After 30 seconds move to the other side.
- Full Squat Holds - 1 minute.
- Hanging - 1 minute. If you can't do a minute, try for 30 seconds to start. Do what you can and build up.
- Kettlebell Swings - 30 reps. Choose a challenging weight, but don't go super heavy. Focus on great technique.
- Hanging - 1 minute
That's it. It seems like a lot when you put it all together in a list like that, but it doesn't take much time at all. You won't need to rest much in between sets. Most people can get this done in under 20 minutes.
Remember, give this an honest try for 30 days and see how much better your back feels, how much stronger your core is, how your posture has improved, and how much more mobile you are in general.