Low back pain is so prevalent now, that people often assume they are going to have pain as they get older. Some back pain is due to age or more accurately, due to unhealthy things we did to our body when we were younger, but some is not. While we can’t go back in time to adopt healthier habits, there are things we can do at any age to improve our low back health and decrease pain.
There are many variables that affect low back pain, but I want to focus on one that many people don’t talk about or know about. It used to be that when people had back pain, they were often told to strengthen their back muscles. The problem with this was that most of the time the back muscles were already strong enough relative to other muscles, but they were overworked and needed more rest. Naturally, training them more to strengthen them was often counterproductive, especially if it was the only intervention.
Eventually people realized that the bigger problem was that the abdominal muscles were not working enough and the low back was picking up the slack from ab muscles that weren’t doing their job correctly. This leads to overuse of the low back muscles and pain. Other things cause low back pain too, such as poor posture/alignment, movement mechanics, etc. For now, I’m focusing on muscle function.
While this is definitely an improved approach to low back rehab and helps decrease low back pain, it still missing a major piece of the puzzle. There are many people whose abs and low back muscles are strong enough to properly do the work they need to do, yet these people still experience pain. The problem is that muscles develop bad habits over time and just because a muscle is strong enough, it doesn’t mean your body will utilize it correctly.
There is a neurological component to muscular activation that people are rarely taught and it’s usually the difference between developing a functional body and simply training muscles, often creating dysfunction in the process. Most muscle activation is subconscious and while we can consciously alter the muscles we use to some degree, we are rarely taught to do so. Once we develop a pattern of muscle activation, we follow it no matter what, unless there is some intervention (injury, retraining, etc.). Unfortunately, many of the healthy neurological patterns we had when we were children disappear as we age.
A great example of this is breathing, which primarily involves subconscious muscle activation. Many adults pull in their belly when they take a deep breath in, yet we should be expanding our belly when we breathe in to allow space for the air to go. For whatever reasons, our breathing pattern can completely change and we continue breathing that way until we retrain our bodies to breathe in a healthier way.
Over the years, I’ve had a few people actually tell me it’s impossible to breathe in and have their belly go out at the same time (because it was so challenging for them to do). The simple response to this is to look at any baby. They naturally breathe the way we are all supposed to and they have no training whatsoever.
The longer we use an incorrect neuromuscular recruitment pattern, the longer it takes to replace it with a healthier one, but it absolutely can be done, We just have to make our subconscious muscle activation a conscious activity. After we perform the correct pattern many times, assuming we are consistent with it, it will become our default again and we won’t have to think about it so much.
When it comes to low back pain, people frequently have to retrain their core musculature and teach their bodies how to effectively use all four of their abdominal muscles synergistically with their low back muscles. When each muscle does the work it’s supposed to do, the chance of experiencing overworked muscles goes way down and back pain almost always goes away or at least decreases significantly.
The end result is you will have much more function and be able to engage in activities you may not have been able to perform for years. The decrease or elimination of chronic pain also creates a huge benefit in everyday quality of life. Doing this type of training is well worth the effort it takes to retrain your body to develop healthier movement and muscle activation patterns. These are changes that will improve the rest of your life.