Functional exercise and back pain: how can it help?

Strong muscles are the key to spinal health. The muscles surrounding the spine act as its support system. To use an analogy, imagine a tall building surrounded by scaffolding, with the building representing the spine and the scaffolding representing the muscles. Now, if the scaffolding were removed, the strength of the building will be compromised. The same goes for the spine, if the muscles are weakened, the spine is at greater risk of injury.

If you’ve ever broken a bone, when the cast was removed you probably noticed a reduction in the muscle surrounding the affected area. It’s exactly the same when you experience back pain or injury. Because the muscles have not been used properly, they thin and waste. This, in turn, leaves you at risk of re-injury unless you work to re-build the muscles to restore functionality and strength.

If you have, or are currently experiencing back pain, it’s important that you undertake a rehabilitation programme which includes relevant exercises to strengthen your core and low back muscles to ensure optimum support for your spine.

So, how do you do it? The muscles running down either side of the spine, the Erector Spinae act as columns when you bend and lift. These are the muscles which come in to play when you do exercises such as dorsal raises and most ‘traditional’ back-extension movements. However, If you think about your day-to-day activities, how often does the movement involve just forwards-and-backwards flexion and extension? Opening doors, picking up bags, rolling over in bed all involve movements in other planes and therefore, use different muscles.

By performing functional exercises, you can hit these small, deeper muscles which, in turn will make you stronger and better supported to carry out your daily activities. Gym machines have their place but in the context of back pain, they’re pretty irrelevant. A shoulder press is all well and good but how many times during the day do you sit down and push a heavy item above your head? In reality, when you, say, reach up to put something in a cupboard, not only will your shoulder muscles be working but (amongst others) your core muscles will need to come into play to stabilise your trunk as your centre of gravity changes.

More and more gyms are moving towards functional exercise now and many are bringing in equipment to help. Kettlebells, TRX training and ViPR equipment are commonplace in many gyms nowadays.  If you have back pain and have access to a gym, it is well worth booking a session with an instructor to learn how to use this kit.

If you don’t have access to a gym, there is still plenty you can do to incorporate functional exercise into your routine.  Functional movements can be split into 7 basic types:


Think back to your day-to-day activities and they will all contain one or more of the above movements. Therefore, you can use these 7 categories to devise a functional training plan.

We’ll soon be posting a functional training plan you can do at home or in the gym. In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding back pain or functional exercise, please feel free to leave a comment.

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