Position of Strength

These back exercises will give you a solid support system By R.J. Ignelzi Union-Tribune Staff Writer Union Tribune – Health Section – May 26, 2009 SECOND IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES.

It’s time to get back to the back. With so much emphasis on improving the “mirror muscles” like the abs, arms and chest which we see reflected on every shiny surface, we often neglect the hard-working back.

Research shows that strong back muscles are less likely to be injured than weaker back muscles. In a recent study, low-back-pain sufferers had significantly less discomfort after 10 weeks of strength exercises for the lumbar spine muscles.

Over 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain in their lifetime, so it’s advisable for everyone to keep these muscles in tiptop shape. To help you develop a strong-back program, we offer some previously published favorite exercises from the weekly Firehouse Fitness column.

Seated Lower Back Stretch

The moves: Retired San Diego fire captain Jill Murray of Station 16C demonstrates a low back and torso stretch performed in a sitting position. This is a great stretch break for those who work at a desk.

Works on: Stretches the lower back and increases thoracic rotation.

Level of difficulty: Beginner.

Precautions: Do not pull the head and neck forward with the hands. Don’t hold your breath during the stretch.

Setup: Sit near the front edge of a sturdy chair, preferably one that does not roll. Interlock the fingers and place them lightly on the back of the head.

Steps: Bend to the right and bring your right elbow to your right knee. Try not to collapse the chest during the movement. Simultaneously, keep the left shoulder and elbow up and back as much as possible. Hold the stretch for a count of three, then repeat the move on the other side.

Repetitions: Repeat three times on each side several times a day.

Child’s Pose

The move: Firefighter Jay Albrandt of Station 27C demonstrates a yoga pose to help calm the mind and body as it stretches the back.

Works on: Back relaxation.

Level of difficulty: Beginner.

Precautions: Do not perform this move if you have a history of cartilage tear of the knee. Use a mat or carpet to reduce pressure points on the knees.

Setup: Begin on your hands and knees, with the knees torso-width apart. The ankles should be extended so the tops of the feet are touching the floor.

The steps: Keeping weight on the knees, bring the big toes together and keep them touching throughout the pose. Sit back gently onto the heels. Bring the chest down to rest on the thighs. Allow the forehead to rest on the floor. Bring the arms to the sides of the legs, hands near the feet, and let the shoulders relax to the ground. Relax and breathe normally.

Repetitions: Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.

Options: Use a pillow or rolled up towel between the calves and thighs if you can’t quite sit back all the way.

Squatting Lumbar Spine Stretch

The moves: San Diego firefighter Ryan Ybarra of Station 8C stretched his lumbar spine in a squat position.

Works on: Spine mobility, lumbar flexibility, lower-extremity flexibility and strength.

Level of difficulty: Advanced.

Precautions: This stretch is not for everyone. If you have a history of back injury, check with your physician before attempting this. People with knee problems may not be able to do this stretch comfortably. Do not hold your breath during this activity.

Setup: Stand with the feet hip-width apart. Perform a full squat with the torso coming down between the knees and the abdomen resting on the thighs. Attempt to keep the heels on the ground. Wrap the arms around the outside of the knees. It may take months of practice, but the goal of this stretch is to get the buttocks to touch the heels with the shoulders between the knees and in front of the shins.

Repetitions: Starting out, hold the stretch for 30 seconds to one minute. As your tolerance builds, progress to one to two minutes.

Options: You can perform this stretch by holding onto something very sturdy that is about waist-high. This will assist you in coming back out of the squat if strength or balance is a problem.

Reverse Flies On a Stability Ball

The move: San Diego firefighter Kurtis Bennett of Station 14C performs a back strengthening exercise performed with dumbbells on a stability ball.

Works on: Rhomboids, posterior deltoid, trapezius and core muscles.

Level of difficulty: Intermediate.

Precautions: Use very light weights or no weights at first or until the exercise feels comfortable. A stability ball larger than 55 centimeters is recommended.

Setup: Lie face down on a stability ball with the torso directly on the ball and shoulders slightly ahead of the ball. Place toes on the floor behind you and your knees off the floor and bent slightly. Once you become comfortable on the ball, take a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing inward and elbows slightly bent.

The steps: Lift one arm directly out to the side as you contract the shoulder blades together and flatten your upper body against the stability ball. Use your legs to stabilize yourself on top of the ball. At the top of the motion, the weight should be at or slightly above the level of your back. Return the weight to the starting position slowly and perform the same movement with the other arm.

Repetitions: Perform three sets of 10 repetitions with each arm.

Options: Try increasing the weight of the dumbbells, increasing the number of reps, or performing the exercise with both arms lifting dumbbells at the same time.

Unsupported Bent-Over Row

The move: San Diego firefighter Mike Ferguson of Station 10C demonstrates a bent-over row without arm or knee support.

Works on: Whole back strength and stability. It also works the biceps and posterior shoulders.

Level of difficulty: Intermediate.

Precautions: Without proper technique, this exercise can be risky for the lower back. It is absolutely vital that the back remains arched, the abdomen pulled in and the knees bent throughout the entire movement.

Setup: Choose a dumbbell that is half of your normal bent-over row weight and place it on the ground at your feet. Arch the lower back, stick the buttocks out behind you and squat down by bending the knees. Maintain the arched back, but lean the torso forward (pivot at the hips) until you can grab the dumbbell.

Steps: Maintain the arched spine and flat back, but straighten the knees into a one-quarter squat. From this stable position, perform slow and controlled bent-over rows. The weight does not touch the ground between repetitions. Place the back of the opposite hand on the lower back to ensure there is no movement there and that the arch is maintained.

Repetitions: Three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions.

Options: Add a small squat with each repetition by touching the dumbbell to the floor at the bottom of the movement, only if you can maintain the proper back position.

Body Weight Resistance Row

The move: San Diego firefighter paramedic Kelly Robinson of Station 29C performs a standing row with a rope and body weight resistance.

Works on: Latissimus, posterior deltoid and core stability strength.

Level of difficulty: Intermediate to advanced.

Precautions: This exercise can be deceivingly difficult, especially as the angle of body lean increases. Start the exercise in a near-upright position and progress conservatively in a backward lean as your strength improves. Be sure the rope is in good condition and that its attachment point is solid. Perform this exercise in an open area with good footing.

Setup: Grab an end of the rope in each hand and stand facing its point of attachment. Bend the elbows and bring the hands to the chest. Walk backward until the rope is taut. Square the feet to the shoulders and tighten the abdominals to hold the torso straight and rigid throughout the movement.

Steps: Lean back and slowly straighten the elbows until the arms are straight. Allow yourself to rock back onto your heels. Pull yourself back to the starting position by first squeezing the shoulder blades together and finishing the row with the hands directly below the shoulders.

Repetitions: Three sets of 10 to 20.

Options: Try different heights of the rope’s attachment point to change the angle of resistance.