Why strengthening abs for back pain is a waste of time

I have a congenital back condition. One I can barely spell – spondylothesis. While having been a pain in the proverbial, it has also been an essential part of my relationship with my body and the ongoing exploration of the body and its relationship to health and wellbeing.

When I was thirteen I was given particularly bad advice from the medical profession. That I should avoid using my back and strengthen my abdominal muscles. The result of which was bad posture, more pain and an ever-weakening back.

On my journey, I tried just about every treatment out there to try and help and I have the scars to prove it. Yoga, shiatsu, osteopathy and acupuncture to name a few. Each had their benefits, but I found the results limited.

Now, however, my back is better than ever and I never have to resort to pain killers for it. So what made the difference? Weights. Heavy weights. Very heavy weights!

Studies have shown that only training abdominal muscles, as often recommended, to be ineffective in helping back pain and that was certainly my experience.

Research published in the Archives Of Physical Medicine And Rehabilitation showed that near maximal muscle activation is achieved during heavy compound exercises such as deadlifts. This muscle activation causes the back muscles to strengthen dramatically, supporting the spine and allowing stressed, locked and knotted muscles to finally relax.

Back pain accounted for 34.4 million lost working days in 2011. More than any other illness. It’s a big problem that can be helped by big lifts.

How heavy is heavy? You should be pulling around 70% of your 1 rep max (the heaviest you can lift 1 repetition of), which also happens to be around 10 reps with the tenth repetition being the last one that can be done while maintaining good form.

The deadlift is simple in some ways. It’s just picking up a heavy weight and putting it down again. However, it’s also fairly technical with a lot of details that have to be got right for it to be a safe and effective lift. So much so, that many trainers shy away from teaching their clients how to pull (deadlift) properly.

For me it’s been such a life saver that I find it absolutely essential for just about everyone. I’ve seen back pain and posture improve in so many of my clients. I find it well worth the effort of investing my time and attention teaching people how to deadlift safely and effectively.

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