Strength Training Principles for the Lower Back and Abdominal Muscles

Most sports, especially of the team variety, require the body to perform a set of numerous and diverse tasks. The bodies of these athletes are required to execute quick bursts of energy, sudden directional change, as well as the ability to sustain physical contact from an array of sources such as other players, mats, boards and ice. The lower and upper extremities take a small portion of the stress incurred by physical play leaving the bulk of the force on the athlete's mid-section (abdominal region and lower back). Consequently, athletes participating in most team sports require the obvious strength and endurance to play the sport as well as, the often ignored, strong back and mid-section.

Your back can be divided into three major regions – cervical (neck), thoracic (upper-mid back) and the lumbar (lower back). An area often injured in hockey is the thoraco-lumbar spine. The following muscle groups support this area:

  • Hip flexors (psoas – flex the trunk and hip),
  • Lower abdominals (transversus abdominus, multifidus & pelvic floor muscles) act as major stabilizers of the lower back)
  • Obliques (internal & external obliques) stabilize trunk during rotation and movement
  • Upper abdominals (rectus abdominus) increase intra-abdominal pressure and assist in force expiration
  • Lower back muscles (quadratus lumborum & erector spinae) extend the trunk

The source of back injury can often be difficult to decipher due to the complex integration of muscles in the core area. When minor strains occur, compensation inevitably happens increasing the risk of greater injury in both the damaged tissues and the interacting healthy tissues.

Immediate treatment of a back injury requires (R.I.C.E) rest, ice, compression and elevation. If pain persists, assessment by a professional (sport-medicine doctor, physiotherapist, chiropractor or other health care professional) is essential. After a diagnosis is determined, an individualized treatment and rehabilitation program can be implement.

Exercises should be prescribed in order to re-train the injured tissues on how to fire appropriately or a health care professional can introduce athletes to a more suitable motor pathway. A common starting point is pelvic tilting to make sure that the lower abdominals are recruited. Pelvic tilting should progress from a position on your back, to your front, to a four point position, to hands on knees standing in a bent over position, to being fully upright and finally to a dynamic movement. An athlete's lower back muscles and hip flexors should be attended to next step as they dictate the amount of pelvic rotation the body has which then effects how well your obliques and upper abdominals function.

Flexibility exercises for the anatomical areas that affect the back should be included in all rehabilitation programs. Improving flexibility helps to restore the correct range of motion and condition the musculature necessary for lower back health.

When commencing a back rehabilitation program, allow pain to be the determining factor. Any exercise causing pain should be discontinued or limited to a pain free range of motion. Follow the guidelines stated by your attending health care professional to determine the specific strength training program best suited for the injury.

Misconceptions of Training

Common misconceptions about abdominal and lower back training:

  1. You can train the abdominals daily. Training the entire abdominal region everyday can lead to strains (you can, however, train different abdominal regions on consecutive days if you know how to properly recruit them).
  2. Abdominal exercises will reduce fat around your midsection. There is no direct pathway from your muscle cells to your fat cells. Individual genetics determine which area of your body loses fat first when you exercise. Abdominal definition is strongly correlated with a low body fat percentage.
  3. Your posture doesn't have anything to do with your lower back pain. Your posture is the start and finish of all movement. Your body is designed to work best when in a standing position (proper posture is when the ear, shoulder, hip and knee are in one line).
  4. This is the best abdominal exercise;. There is no one best abdominal exercise. As previously noted, there are many different muscles that make up your core region. Consequently, there are many different movements that can tax and train each muscle. In life and sport, your body will move and adjust in a myriad of directions. Abdominals and lower back should be trained with varied angles and patterns of resistance using stability balls, cables, free weights, medicine balls and body weight while you are stationary, on your front/back/side, sitting, hanging, standing and moving.

Good luck and maintain your health!

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