The back must be the most unsung part of the body. It is generally taken for granted and rarely considered until something goes wrong – and when it does go wrong it occupies just about every painful movement and waking thought!

The back supports our basic structure and keeps us upright and functioning. The admonishments “to show some spine” or “get a backbone” are cutting but powerful and pointed turns of phrase based on physiological fact.


There are many niggles and injuries that – whilst never ideal – can be accommodated and muddled through. Not so the bad back. When this strikes it is utterly restrictive, prohibitive and debilitationg. And for those mothers of toddlers out there it can bring our lives to a shuddering halt!

The problem with the back in training terms is that it is just not very sexy. At least the lower back isn’t and that is really the business end. We’ve seen bodybuilders fanning their teres major, teres minor and displaying defined latissimus dorsi on stage and for fans of this kind of posing it looks mightily impressive. But it is what is going on nearer the small of the back (erector spinae and multifidus) that really counts on a functional level.

Statistically low back pain is an issue for most of us.

In fact 75% of us are likely to have a significant episode at some time in our lives. A figure like that should really make us sit up and take notice.

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We can train our legs, bottoms, arms and shoulders and see a noticeable and definite difference.

In turn this provides the inspiration to continue working those areas and reap the practical and aesthetic benefits. But with our lower back there is no such visual spur, and if there was we’d have trouble seeing it anyway! And one thing is for certain – a back weakness or injury will ensure those lovely effective upper and lower body workouts become next to impossible.

We have to train to get a strong healthy back

In a sense the back is not dissimilar to the rib cage. We don’t give it a second thought, but if you have ever pulled an intercostal muscle or cracked a rib, just about every movement is impaired and coughing, sneezing, laughing and even yawning become agonising!

A well trained lower back is not only a functional necessity but it can actually give a somewhat sexy sweep to the buttocks, and for those with a ‘flat’ backside it can help create an illusion of a more ‘pronounced’ bottom.

However just performing classic back extensions won’t suit everybody’s back. This is where the evolution of Pilates deserves respect from even the most traditional of old time exercisers. If for instance you have a back known to be ‘lordotic’ with a deep curve in the lumbar area (think of the gymnasts’ posture and their bend here) then a good old back bend isn’t for you. That’s because you already bend sufficiently there and it would be rather like folding a piece of paper in the same fold, it wears eventually.

What this back type actually needs for more strength is to shorten the abdominal muscles and get the deeper transversus strong. This will help tilt the pelvis backwards (and the pubic bone forwards) and therefore even out the exaggerated kink. Alongside that, abdominal and deeper muscle exercises that keep the lower back flat to the floor, with knees raised and square to the hips, will ensure the correct muscles are engaged to help support lower back weakness or vulnerability. I have seen wonderful results from taking this approach for lordotic postures with back discomfort.

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The opposite of this would be a flat back posture with not many curves anywhere in the spine.

For these types it is an idea to stretch the stomach muscles to allow more flexibility and less rigidity in the lower back. Rotation exercises work will for these types.

There are other types of postures and of course a hybrid of those, but when it comes to problems it is about looking at the body as one piece. If there is a back complaint, how related is that to the pelvis or the upper back or commonly the buttocks? It isn’t unusual for someone to complain of lower back discomfort and after some good stretches for the glutes, especially the periformis, the discomfort passes. Thankfully this is an instant relief but of course there are more many back problems that don’t resolve like that!

A structurally balanced and sound skeleton will ensure tensions can’t survive. This is because if the skeleton is correct, the muscles, nerves and circulatory system will  perform their roles as designed. Imperfections and imbalance in the fundamentals leads to a compromise of such systems and, unfortunately a range symptomatic dis-ease around the body.

The body is a mechanical marvel. It really is a remarkable piece of engineering and incredibly resilient when you consider the battering it takes internally and externally from even the most cautious and health conscious of people. However if you really want to bring it down nothing will achieve this more quickly than a bad back. We overload it, we pay little heed to our posture and we lose flexibility.

Your lower back might not draw admiring glances on the beach this summer, but your general shape, posture and movement might well do – and that could be in no small way down to that back of yours!

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