According to the American Chiropractic Association, 31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time. If you have chronic back pain, here’s how to strengthen your lower back.

Before getting into exercises that strengthen the lower back, it’s important to understand why so many people experience back pain.

Most cases of chronic back pain are due to muscle imbalances. As a result, in the last decade or so, “core” has been the buzzword in the fitness industry. Strengthening your lower back and eliminating muscle imbalances has everything to do with strengthening your core.

Think of your core as a corset hugging your vital organs and spine. Some people think that the core is your stomach. Wrong. Your stomach is a relatively small organ that helps break down food. Others think that the core is the abdominal muscles but the ‘abs’ are only a small component of the core.

Perform some crunches and you’re only strengthening a part of the core.

Here are all the muscles of the core you’ll need to strengthen to help you avoid back pain:

  • Rectus Abdominus (commonly referred to as the ‘abs’)
  • Obliques (known by some as the ‘side abs’)
  • Transverse Abdominis (deepest layer of the abdominals)
  • Spinal Erectors (muscles that keep the spine upright)
  • Glutes (the bottom of the core, the largest muscles of the body)
Together, all the muscles above form a three dimensional group of muscles that resembles a shipping box. Your rectus abdominus, which runs from the bottom of your breast bone all the way to your pelvis is the front of the box.

The obliques are the sides of the shipping box. The spinal erectors form the back of the box and the glutes are the bottom of the box.

The transverse abdominis, the deepest of four layers of abdominal cavity musculature can be thought of as the contents of the box.

These muscles, collectively, run up and down, across, and diagonally. Using the shipping box analogy, if one of the dimensions of the box, say, gets soaked with water, the integrity of the box will be compromised. The same thing occurs with your muscles. If one or more group of core muscles is weaker than the others, especially the deep transverse abdominis muscles, the lower back will feel it.

Exercise ballHere then are some basic exercises to strengthen your lower back:

Perhaps the most important exercise to begin with and practice daily is the plank. Millions of trainers and physical therapists attest to the planks ability to activate and strengthen the deep abdominal cavity muscles. Depending on what exercise physiologist you ask, there are three or four layers of muscles in the abdominal wall.

If you’re doing a plank correctly, your deep intrinsic muscles will be shaking. This shaking is indicative of your muscles being activated and the brain-skeletomuscular communication being in sync.

Most people that do crunches perform dozens of repetitions. This is a waste of time and though you might be strengthening the abdominals, what’s really getting the workout are the hip flexors. Not a bad thing necessarily, but if your goal is to strengthen the front of the core, keep in mind that the abdominals don’t need endless repetitions to get strong.

To perform a crunch correctly, get in a sit up position, but try to hold your head off the ground and feel your shoulder blades barely making contact with the floor. Look up at the ceiling or sky and peel your shoulder blades just one to two inches off the ground and hold for a three count as you breath out.

You should be shaking. Return very slowly back to the starting position. Inhale and immediately come back up. Remember that only a micro movement is necessary to properly stimulate the abs.

Try to perform 10-12 reps. To strengthen the obliques (the sides of the core), simply twist to one direction at the top of the movement. Return to starting position and then repeat to the other side. Remember to hold at the top for a couple of seconds.

Performing 3-5 of these exercises on a daily basis for as little as 10 minutes may help strengthen the core and help you mitigate back pain.

Photo: adria.richards/Flickr

Judd Handler is a health coach and freelance writer in Encinitas, California.