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Health

10 Spine Strengthening Exercises from a Doctor


Protect your back from pain by strengthening your cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine.

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Antonio_Diaz/iStock/GettyImages

A healthy spine allows you to do things like walk, run, bend, and twist with ease. And the best way to support your spine is to strengthen the muscles around it. Exercises to support your entire spine, including the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine, can keep you mobile and pain-free.

When you think of spinal strengthening exercises, you may only think of the lower back. Maintaining a healthy body means keeping your entire spine strong, including your upper, middle, and lower back. A regular exercise program to keep your spine strong will also help prevent future injuries.

“Strengthening exercises make the muscles that support the spine stronger. They also provide stability to the spine,” says Antonio Webb, MD, a board-certified and trained orthopedic spine surgeon. administration in San Antonio, Texas. “(They) also allow for better posture by keeping the spine aligned. Poor posture is a common contributor to back pain, particularly in the cervical and lumbar regions. Proper strengthening exercises can help alleviate this.

Why Spinal Strengthening Exercises Are Important

A strong core is the foundation of a healthy spine, says the Mayo Clinic. This helps give you the stability and balance needed to move as efficiently as possible. Your core also promotes good posture. In addition to your core, it’s important to strengthen other muscles that support your spine to avoid muscle imbalances, which can lead to pain and injury.

Your spine starts at your neck – and a strong cervical spine not only helps with posture (and prevents the dreaded “tech neck” from looking at your phone), but also promotes pain-free movement.

“My favorite way to strengthen my cervical spine is to first maintain good posture. This is essential for improving the overall health of your cervical spine,” says Dr. Webb. “Prolonged bending, particularly in my work as a surgeon and also in people who are constantly looking at their phones, can place excessive strain on the posterior supporting muscles, causing them to fatigue and spasm. This can lead to discomfort and pain.”

One of Dr. Webb’s best neck exercises includes isometric strengthening, which research has shown to be effective. A meta-analysis from September 2022 in ‌Medicine‌ found that isometric neck strengthening exercises were effective in reducing pain and improving function and mobility.

A strong thoracic spine (or mid-back) helps promote good posture to prevent a back hump, also called postural kyphosis. An October 2017 study in ‌International osteoporosis‌ found that postural training and exercises improved a hunched posture after six months.

“Exercises that can strengthen the thoracic spine include yoga or Pilates,” says Dr. Webb. “Poses like cobra and bridge, in addition to rotating stretches, can be beneficial and helpful.”

“Exercises that strengthen the lumbar spine should focus on core stability, which is key to reducing the load on the lumbar vertebrae and discs,” says Dr. Webb. He recommends planks, glute bridges, wall sits and pelvic tilts. “Additionally, maintaining movement in the lumbar region can prevent stiffness and discomfort.”

Three specific core-strengthening exercises called McGill’s Big 3 work the core in a way that protects your spine from injury. The three exercises are the modified curl-up, side plank, and bird-dog (videos below). An April 2018 study in the ‌Journal of Physical Therapy Sciences‌ found that these three exercises, compared to conventional exercises, were more effective in reducing pain and improving movement, especially for those with chronic lower back pain.

10 Best Spine Strengthening Exercises

Try doing the following 10 exercises two to three times a week, along with aerobic conditioning. “Several other exercises can help promote a healthy spine, including aerobic exercise, swimming, walking, aquatic therapy, stretching, yoga, and Pilates,” says Dr. Webb.

Warning

If you feel pain while doing these exercises, it is best to stop. Mild discomfort is to be expected, but sharp or shooting pain is a warning sign. “Use pain as an indicator: it should not be severe or worsening. If it is, you should stop exercising immediately and seek professional help,” says Dr. Webb.

1. Neck isometrics

  1. Sit upright in a chair or stand with your shoulders back and your head in a neutral position.
  2. Press your palm against your forehead and resist with your neck. Hold for 10 seconds. Your head should not move at all. Repeat 5 times.
  3. Press your palm against the back of your head and resist the movement. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
  4. Press your right palm against the right side of your head. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
  5. Press your left palm against the left side of your head. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.
  6. Repeat the entire sequence 2 to 3 times.

2. Chin tuck

  1. Sit or stand with your shoulders back and your ears on your shoulders.
  2. Keeping your head level, pull your chin back (you can press on your chin with a finger if that helps) until you feel a stretch in your neck.
  3. Hold for 5 seconds.
  4. Repeat 2 sets of 10.

3. Resistance Band Rows

  1. Sit on the floor with your back straight and your legs extended in front.
  2. Wrap a resistance band around the soles of your feet and hold one end of the band in each hand.
  3. Bend your elbows and pull the band back, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  4. Slowly return to the starting position with arms straight.
  5. Repeat 2 sets of 15.

Advice

You can also perform the exercise online using the cable pulley machine at the gym.

4. Lying arm lift

  1. Lie face down on the floor with a pillow under your stomach.
  2. Place your arms on either side with your elbows bent and your hands behind your head.
  3. Lift your shoulders and arms off the floor until your back is straight. Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top.
  4. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds.
  5. Return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat 2 sets of 10.

5. Opposite arm/leg raises while lying down

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs stretched behind you. Rest on your forearms.
  2. Lift your right arm straight out in front, while lifting your leg at the same time.
  3. Continue to raise your right arm and left leg for 10 repetitions.
  4. Repeat on the other side, lifting your left arm and right leg at the same time for 10 repetitions.
  5. Perform 2 to 3 sets of 10 on each side.

6. Superheroes

  1. Lie on your stomach with your legs stretched behind you.
  2. Bend your arms, keeping them at shoulder level.
  3. Keeping your arms bent, lift your legs and upper body at the same time.
  4. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds.
  5. Return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
  6. Perform 2 to 3 sets.

7. Glute Bridges

  1. Squeeze your butt as you lift your butt off the floor.
  2. Continue lifting until your body is in a straight line. Hold for 5 seconds.
  3. Repeat 2 to 3 sets of 10.

8. Modified Curl-Up (McGill Exercise)

  1. Lie on your back and straighten your right leg while keeping your left knee bent. This places your pelvis in a neutral position to strengthen your core without straining your back.
  2. Place your hands under the arch of your back.
  3. Lift your shoulder blades off the floor about 1 to 2 inches. Focus on moving your head and chest together as a unit. Keep your neck straight and don’t let your head fall back.
  4. Hold for 10 seconds.
  5. Repeat 2 to 3 sets of 10.

9. Side plank (McGill exercise)

  1. Lie on your side, leaning on your forearm, with your legs straight and placed on top of each other.
  2. Lift your hips off the floor into a side plank position, keeping your body in a straight line.
  3. Hold for 10 seconds, or as long as you can with good form.
  4. Lower down to the starting position.
  5. Repeat 10 times.
  6. Flip to the other side and repeat 10 times.
  7. Repeat 2 to 3 sets of 10 on each side.

10. Bird Dog (McGill exercise)

  1. Start on all fours with your arms under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
  2. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes as you lift your arm, while lifting the opposite leg up.
  3. Raise your arm until it is level with your shoulder and raise your leg until it is level with your hips.
  4. Hold for 10 seconds, or as long as you can with good form.
  5. Repeat 10 times on each side.
  6. Repeat for 2 to 3 sets.

Gn Health

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