Wingman workouts
Low back stability can reduce your wingman’s back pain

Capt. Scott A. Jones
435th Medical Operations Squadron

***image1***Have you ever experienced this scenario?
You watch your wingman perform several sit-ups, at first with little or no discomfort, and then they gradually begin to feel their lower back tighten up until it becomes so painful that they have to stop. The pain may last for days or weeks, so they rest until the pain diminishes.  

It’s a frustrating cycle for many servicemembers attempting to prepare for their fitness test and, unfortunately, an experience that seems impossible to escape.

Can this be overcome?
Rest, ice and medication are great for short-term relief, but when it comes to low back injury prevention, exercise is the key. Many physical therapists provide specific exercises for their patients to combat this widespread problem – lumbar stabilization. This type of exercise has proven very effective in helping individuals who suffer from many types of low back pain.

Why is stabilization important?
The importance of low-back stability cannot be over-emphasized when discussing injury prevention. To stabilize anything means to make it stronger and secure. A tall pole can be stabilized with steel wires coming down from the top and secured into the ground. This will make it better able to withstand gusty winds. Our spines can be thought of like that tall pole.

As we go through our day, our spine needs to be able to absorb the stresses and strains of lifting, bending, rotating and a variety of other forces. If our stabilizing muscles (the steel wires) are weak, the ligaments, tendons, discs and vertebrae themselves will be forced to take more of that load and may become injured as a result. Regardless of the injury, the bottom line for someone with low back pain is that discomfort limits daily activities to some degree.

What are the stabilizing muscles?
The most obvious stabilizing muscles are the low back muscles themselves which have a direct attachment to the spine. However, many indirect muscles, such as the abdominals, internal and external obliques and many of the hip muscles contribute to and enhance low back stability.
And, for many individuals learning about the mechanics of a sit-up for the first time, this may be a bit of a surprise: the abdominal muscles are not the primary muscles of the sit-up! Remember, during a sit-up, the abdominal muscles do little more than stabilize the trunk.  The primary muscles of a sit-up are the very powerful hip-flexor muscles called “Psoas-major.” These muscles attach the inside of the hip to all five levels of your lower back vertebrae.  

What this means for you is that if your lower back is not able to stabilize during a sit-up, those powerful hip flexor muscles will pull strongly – and painfully – on the spine of the lower back, causing discomfort, muscle strain and possibly inflammation.

Strengthening the stabilizers of the lower back takes more than just sit-ups and crunches. Most everyone has heard something of the connection between strong abdominal muscles and a strong back. Many people assume that doing a certain number of sit-ups every day will strengthen their abdominals and help their back pain. This is true to a point. The abdominal muscles are crucial to good back stabilization. But it’s the transverse abdominals – muscles that run horizontally right to left across your lower abdomen that are the key. If those muscles are not working correctly, your wingman may be doing lots of sit-ups, and strengthening certain abdominal muscles, but not working their transverse muscles much at all. That means their exercise program isn’t doing the good for them that they think it is. Your wingman needs to learn how to kick-in those transverse abdominals.

Are stabilization exercises appropriate for your wingman?
When a physical therapist evaluates a wingman with back pain for the first time, one of the things they’re assessing is the quality of lumbar stabilization. Once the areas of dysfunction are known, exercises can be prescribed to target those muscle groups. People who do regularly exercise are sometimes surprised to find out their exercise technique is incorrect, and that it may actually be contributing to their back pain.

From decreased back pain, to improved quickness and speed on the court, and even longer drives off the tee, good core stability has many benefits. It’s not just about having a stronger body for strength’s sake alone, it’s about doing something for your wingman that may enhance their total quality of life and reduce their chances for sports- and fitness-related injury. It’s certainly worth checking out.