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The Moving Crew

Watch Your Back

Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page HE03

Unless, like your second-grade teacher, you have eyes in the back of your head, you are probably ignoring an important part of your fitness regimen. Even the least vain among us (okay, among you) tend to focus on "mirror muscles": chest, abs, biceps and other body parts we see in our reflections.

But if you want balanced fitness, a strong core and functional strength -- not to mention blissful ignorance of the merchandise in The Back Store -- it's time to pay attention to your back side.


If you want balanced fitness, a strong core and functional strength, it's time to pay attention to your back side.

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Our most neglected dorsal area is the lower back, said Richard Cotton, chief exercise physiologist of the Web site myexerciseplan.com.

"First, you can't really see the lower back, unlike the upper back, which is kind of a 'show muscle' also," said Cotton, former chief exercise physiologist for the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation. "And it is very hard to tell the difference [by sight] between an out-of-shape lower back and one that is in shape."

Weak lower back muscles will tear more easily than stronger ones under duress and offer scant protection to surrounding tendons and ligaments. They lead to chronic lower back pain. And back muscles, like most, weaken with age unless specifically exercised.

Core symmetry -- meaning balance of the muscles on the front and back of your torso, as well as on both sides -- helps provide stable support for your spine. By focusing disproportionately on your abs (that's you, Ms. Hundred-Crunches-a-Day, and you, Mr. Infomercial Victim) you are in essence creating a lopsided corset for your spine -- and inviting injury and unwelcome contortion.

"If people work too hard on developing the show muscles . . . they can develop reverse posture syndrome, [which] causes the shoulder blade to pull around the rib cage and the shoulders to be held forward," said Carl Petersen, a Vancouver, B.C., physiotherapist and author on sport-specific training. Petersen calls the resulting forward hunch "a dysfunctional position" that can increase muscle strain and risk of painful tendinitis.

The good news, Cotton said, is that you needn't put much time into your back muscles: one set of 15 reps of even one exercise per workout will do the trick.

A few choices:

• Lie on your stomach, hold your arms down at your sides, and lift your shoulders off the floor three to five inches. Do five and see how you feel the next morning. Gradually increase until you can do 15 without next-day discomfort.

• The Plank: Brace yourself on your forearms and your toes, face down, and tighten your torso to create a straight line from your head to your feet. Hold for 30 seconds. Reach three minutes and you're a hero.

• Finally, the Flying Superman: Lie face-down, arms outstretched and legs slightly spread. Simultaneously raise all four limbs. Hold for five seconds and release. Ignore the people laughing at you and repeat to fatigue.

Do any or all of these exercises for a couple of weeks with days off between. Then lift groceries with ease, carry a bag of mulch across the yard and wonder where that nagging back pain went. And join our next Moving Crew chat, Thursday at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/liveonline/health/movingcrew.

-- John Briley


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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