Are All Those Low Back Exercises Really Doing Something?
Low back pain affects millions of people in the United States every year. Billions of dollars are spent in lost wages and medical bills for this problem. It is expected that eight out of every 10 Americans will suffer back pain sometime during their lives.

Given those numbers, doctors and physical therapists are working hard to find ways to prevent and treat back injuries. One of the most popular ways to treat back pain is exercise to strengthen muscles. Different exercises are used to strengthen different muscles of the back, trunk, stomach, and buttocks.

Physical therapists know that some muscles move the back or upper body while others hold the back in place. Knowing how these muscles work and which exercises really make a difference is important. Previous research has shown that muscles that move the back or trunk can be strengthened and measured. So far, similar studies of exercises for the holding or stabilizing muscles have not been done.

A group of physical therapists looked at two of the stabilization exercises commonly used in back programs. Muscle activity during these exercises was measured. Twelve healthy adults (ages 25 to 39) who had no previous back problems did the exercises. The therapists placed electrodes on the skin over different muscles of the back, stomach, trunk, and buttocks. While doing one of two different exercises, the activity level of the muscles was measured through these electrodes.

What did the researchers find? One exercise used the stomach or abdominal muscles while the other exercise required more trunk and buttock muscles. However, in healthy adults there wasn't enough muscle activity to actually strengthen the muscles during these exercises. What does this mean? It's back to the drawing board for physical therapists! A future study is planned to measure the effects of these exercises on people who have injured their backs. It may be that weak muscles can be strengthened by these two exercises.

It's nice to know that physical therapists are able to train patients with low back injuries in safer and more effective ways. Finding out which exercises work the best to strengthen the back will benefit those who have low back pain.
Gary M. Souza, DPT, OCS, et al. Electromyographic Activity of Selected Trunk Muscles During Dynamic Spine Stabilization Exercises. In Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. November 2001. Vol. 82. No. 11. Pp. 1551-1557.