Developing a strong back

Over 80% of us suffer from back pain at some time in our life and it’s not surprising given the long hours of desk and computer work many of us have to do. Posture habits develop from a very young age and these upset our quality of balance and poise so we stiffen and begin to hold ourselves awkwardly.  These habits have a highly detrimental effect on the working of our whole body, internally as well as with our posture, but it may be backache or neck tension that alerts us to the fact that things are not as good as they should be.

Consequently we may resolve to do more exercise, improve our fitness and get back into a trim shape. Having realised our back may be a bit weak or stiff we may consider strengthening it up with appropriate training.  But there are a number of aspects to this that we may not fully realise as we rush off to the gym,…..that while working out back muscles in exercise can make individual muscles stronger, it does not necessarily mean that they will work together in a co-ordinated way to support us in healthy poise during our normal daily activities.  Far from it.  Even after vast amounts of strengthening exercises we may feel a bit better with increased amount of movement, but we will probably still experience weakness and pain in our back.  This is because the root cause of our problem has not been addressed. Indeed the exercises may well increase the habitual tensions that caused it and may acutally make the problem worse.

If we have a weak back it’s often recommended by the physiotherapist or trainers to strengthen the abdominal muscles to support the back. But we don’t see any young children with strong tummy muscles; theirs are gently toned muscle and relatively soft yet they demonstrate the healthiest natural poise in the world. It really does surprise me how many fitness professionals do not seem to realise that developing core strength can actually bring about further health problems without actually addressing the real cause of the back pain.  This is because strongly worked muscles that are maintained in a contracted state can have a shortening and compressing effect on our torso, reducing our overall stature. The constant tension of ‘holding our tummy in’ fixes the ribs so they do not move as they should, and reduces the internal capacity of our thorax squeezing our internal organs. Inside our torso we are completely ‘full’ to the brim’ with organs. There is no overflow capacity so ‘sucking our guts in’ and holding simply reduces the space inside so our organs become squashed. This can cause a lot of unhealthy restrictions and actual harm to our breathing mechanism which needs our ribs to expand and contract with every breath, as well as causing problems for our digestion, bowel movements and reproductive systems. The excessive tensions in the front of our torso can ‘pull us down’ so we are reduced in height and stature. This compresses our internal organs, our joints, squashes our intervertebral discs and can lead to neck and shoulder tension, backache and headaches.

In my experience a sense of weakness and pain in the back is very often because our back muscles are not working together properly i.e. the teamwork of back muscles is not efficient. If we improve our posture by improving the co-ordination of our muscles so that they start working together properly (without interfering with the tummy muscles)  they will become stronger to fulfil the task they were designed (or evolved) to perform.  Co-ordinational training should bring about more efficient use of all of our muscles throughout our whole body so we function better throughout the day, while walking, sitting, running, bending, carrying or playing sport. However it must be realised that our back muscles do not operate in isolation, but together with the rest of our body. Our body works as a whole so the problem needs to be addressed as a whole.  Reco-ordinating all our muscles is essentional; something I believe cannot really be achieved by any gym work that isolates muscles. It is often the case that back muscles are not actually weak, but simply not co-ordinating in the way they should to support us.  I have worked with some elderly people who have had stronger backs than many young people who work out regularly in a gym, simply because the muscles in their back are better co-ordinated and working more efficiently.

Just in the same way as an unco-ordinated football team where some players do too much whilst others do too little, our bodies have developed the tendency for some muscles to be working far too hard, getting stiff and wasting energy, whilst others have been allowed to be lazy and not do their fair share.  So for example, some parts of us may be very stiff such as our necks and shoulders and hips, whilst our lower back may be rather collapsed and un-supporting.  But the problem need not be a permanent one.  Just like any sports team, our muscles need good direction and can be retrained so they all work together….efficiently.

All of our muscles need to work together in a highly co-ordinated manner in order for us to be healthy, to be fit and cope with today’s hectic lifestyle.  This co-ordination is characterised by a physical quality of being very free and supple in the joints (not stiff or held) yet also expansive in stature so we are at our full height and width…..all at the same time.  We had this free and expansive quality with efficient muscle use, as children and we need it still.  With the onset of postural habits from our early childhood we will have lost the instinct to ‘lead with our heads’ and lengthen and widen in stature as nature intended. We function best when expansive in stature, not slumping or stooping or overly contracted by excessive tension.  But contrary to many people’s misconceptions we have evolved with a particular arrangement of muscles to experience this quality in upright poise without any ‘perceived’ effort.  I say perceived, because obviously muscles are working to do the job, but we should not sense it as effort.  It’s a natural process that will all work well if we encourage it.

The head should lead and the body will follow….just as any cat, lion, cheetah, horse or dog will demonstrate. With Alexander Technique lessons we learn to take conscious control of our whole body, to prevent the wrong harmful use of ourselves and bring about the healthy co-ordination we need. We learn to bring about this lengthening and widening of our whole stature which actually starts with the relationship of our head, neck and back,…. no matter what specific problem we are addressing.  It is the free balance of our skull on the top of our spine, the alignment of our neck as it extends from our back, it is the muscle tone and the tendency to lengthen that all go together to enable our whole ‘self’ to function healthily and well. It’s the way we have evolved.  Every single person in the world needs this quality to function well as it governs our entire co-ordination.   When the head, neck and back relationship is at its optimum, then we create the most positive influence on all our movements, posture and overall functioning….including our back. When we have a good head balance, neck and back relationship, troubles with our back, neck, legs, arms, wrists or anywhere are relatively easily addressed.  But to not address this underlying need means that any treatment to a specific area is unlikely to be successful.  Overally co-ordinational training fundamentally changes our ‘whole’ so we are highly tuned up, toned up and all our muscles are working together to support us and move us around.  We learn to give mental ‘directions’ to lengthen and widen in stature which revives the co-ordination that is rightfully ours.

Being on two feet instead of four like cats and cheetahs can be confusing.  As bipeds, standing on two feet we need to lengthen upwards.  No effort is required and actual pushing must be avoided as making effort to lengthen causes stiffness and contraction. By simply ‘thinking’ and intending to go upwards will activate the muscles accordingly because we are tapping into our natural instinct for poise and how we have evolved.  With Alexander Technique we learn to free our neck and ‘think’ our head going forward and upwards, our back lengthening and widening. We intend it to happen and we must allow it to happen, but we must not do it or force it.  This free expansive quality is happening in young children subconsciously and also with animals. We are now bringing it about consciously and consequently taking control of our habits.  We need this expansive quality (not contracted!) to help our whole body work more efficiently…including our back muscles to support us well.  A child instinctively does this when she wants to be up tall like Mummy and Daddy. We have a lot to learn from our children. But we’re simply talking of re-learning as we’ve had this quality before when we too were young.

If your back is feeling stiff or achy after a lot of sitting and eating, get moving, go for a walk.  But you may also like to consider a different approach  that will fundamentally help you function better…on every level.  Have an Introductory Lesson in the Alexander Technique and discover how your muscles can be retrained and how different you can feel.  You may never look back.

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