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As human function and performance experts we realize that accidents can be prevented both by implementing a sound ergonomics program including both engineer and administrative controls. One of the best administrative controls is exercise. The benefits of exercise are extensive, one of which is building and maintaining healthy muscles, bones and joints. In the world of exercise or fitness a common phrase used is 'core function', 'core strengthening' and 'core stability'. The premise behind these exercises is developing strength around the lower back to prevent injuries

Instability can cause "buckling" in the spine when we perform seemingly simple tasks such as bending over to pick something up. Research has identified the deep muscle running along the vertebrae (spine) have decreased activation causing the spine to "buckle". Therefore, the muscles need to be trained to stiffen to prevent buckling. By training these muscles to stiffen when we engage in strenuous or every day activities we will produce joint stability in the lower back and prevent tissue irritation and injury.

Dr. S. McGill, who is a leading researcher and biomechanist from the University of Waterloo, suggests the most beneficial training for the spine involves muscle endurance rather than strength training performed with a neutral spine posture. From McGill's research, he suggests the following exercises to develop a stable spine.

Cat-Camel Warm Up

This is a flexion-extension exercise to create joint mobility but is not intended as a stretch. You simple increase the curve in the lower back by pushing your stomach towards the floor (camel) and then increase the curve in your upper back by pushing your mid back towards the ceiling. This is not held, just move up and down though the range of back flexion and extension. Perform 6 cycles.

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Side Bridging (for Quadratus Lumborum)

Not trying to get to anatomical, but this muscle is responsible for lower spine stability on the sides (most of us know this area as the love handles). McGill proposes more emphasis should be placed on this type of exercise than the back extensors.

This can be done with the knees bent or straight. These exercises are isometric, which means there is no movement as the muscle is contracted. The contraction is held for 3-10 seconds and repeated up to 5 times per side. If you have shoulder problems, the hand does not have to remain on the hip but can be placed on the shoulder to provide some additional support. The advanced stages of this involve rotating onto the forearms while maintaining a neutral spine.

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Bird Dog/Superman

Some caution is warranted when performing this exercise and may not be the most suitable for those who are experiencing low back pain. It is advised that medical clearance be obtained before attempting this exercise.

As with all of the exercises, the focus is neutral spine while activating the muscle group. The exercise should be held 3-10 seconds and repeated three times. It is important not to twist the spine but lift the leg with both hips parallel to the floor. It is easier if you do it in front of a mirror or have someone watch you. You lift the opposite arm and leg. The higher you lift the arm the more upper back muscle activation. When you bring the leg and arm down, you do not touch the floor but simple sweep bringing the hand and knee together and moving it back up. Do the same on with the other arm and leg.

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Abdominal Bracing

Sit-ups are a "no, no" these days. Enough research has been conducted to clearly show that there is no benefit to doing full sit ups and in fact, are probably more detrimental than beneficial to lower spine health. Unfortunately one exercise cannot sufficiently challenge all of the muscle groups of the abdomen. Therefore, several versions of the curl-ups are recommended by Dr. McGill.

We illustrate one type of curl-up or abdominal brace. One leg is bent, the other remains relaxed. The hands are placed anywhere but behind the head. The reason we do not recommend placing the hands behind the head is because you will tend to pull the head up with the hands causing increased neck flexion. Fix your eyes on a spot on the ceiling directly above you. Tighten your stomach. The best way we can describe this is to contract the lower abdominal muscle as if you didn't want to pass gas (I know, nice thought). Hold the contraction and lift your shoulder blades off the floor while maintaining your focus on the spot on the ceiling. Hold for 3-10 seconds and repeat three times. Switch leg positions, placing one down and the other up and repeat.

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