In the middle of a back flareup, you know two things:
1. This hurts.
2. Some things hurt worse than others:
Rolling to a different side in bed, for instance. Getting in and out of bed, for sure! Getting in and out of your car.
In fact, we don’t have to look very hard to find numerous help pieces on these very tasks. Setting aside the differences in thought on foot position and knee angle, one of the common threads in these articles is the value of bracing your core when you move from position to position during a back flareup or with chronic back pain.
Now, we can really get into the weeds on bracing, but for today we’re going to keep it simple. Bracing your core is something like tensing your abdominal muscles as though you are coughing or about to take a punch. As you contract your abdominal muscles, the muscles in your lower back will naturally contract as well to help hold this brace. The result is a protective ‘belt’ around your spine that keeps the low back rigid and out of pain as you move between positions.
As you might imagine, the ability to brace well is a skill worth cultivating in service of a healthy spine. both to protect against back tweaks and to help you move better during flares. One of the best ways to build this skill–and in our minds, the single best way–is to learn how to brace your spine under and against external load as we do when lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises during our sessions at Woodshed.
There are two keys to using external resistance training to build a better brace and healthier spine:
1. We titrate the load up slowly. With weights this is easy: we add a little weight to the exercise next session only after the athlete has demonstrated proficiency under their current load. The muscles adapt by growing stronger. With bodyweight movements like planks and bird dogs, we add difficulty by increasing repetitions or time spent under tension during the movement. The muscles adapt by growing stronger.
2. We make a point of bracing for bracing’s sake. Often. While the increase in muscular strength we derive from training is a crucial piece in the puzzle, we need to be able to call that strength to action on demand. Bracing is a skill and we practice it as such.
While we can’t guarantee a lifetime reprieve from back pain as the result of our training, we can share that our members have told us consistently that their backs hurt much less frequently after they’ve begun to train with us, and that if they do happen to tweak their backs outside of class, the duration of each flare is significantly shorter than it had been prior to beginning their strength training.
Fewer tweaks and shorter flares? That’s a win. And it all starts with the brace.