An important back strengthening exercise, good for spinal stabilization and mobilization, and strengthening of the erector spinae muscles. Valuable tool in spinal rehabilitation on the phase of strengthening and returning to the full activity. One of the more ‘vigorous’ techniques – it needs to be trained with a member of our spinal rehab team.
This is the ultimate form of spinal strengthening. It is done face down, off the end of a table, with someone holding your feet as you lower your head to the floor and return to horizontal. It is the big brother to the strengthening part of toe touching in the standing position. But because there is a much longer leverage when the spine is suspended out in mid-air off the end of the table, the muscles work much harder to unfurl the spine. The proper action involves a humping movement of the lower back, followed by a wave-like undulation along the spine, with the head coming up last. This is a very effective way of building up the strength of all the intrinsic muscles of the spine. Longissimus and iliocostalis are strengthened when they make the lumbar vertebrae slide backwards in a reverse gliding action and multifidus is strengthened when it pulls the tails of the vertebrae to slot them back from their tipped forward position.
As well as being the most effective way of strengthening the intrinsics, the horizontal exercise is also the most stable. By contrast, toe touches require more advanced coordination. If you have a very unstable segment you never start off from the vertical position, always the horizontal. You may be unlucky enough to get slippage of a vertebra while doing toe touches which will be painful, shake your confidence and leave the problem segment more irritable.
If you want brute strength for a spine which is weak you would go straight to the horizontal form of the intrinsics exercise, doing up to ten repetitions each session. But if you want to gradually build up the strength of a very weak, poorly controlled segment, you have to start off doing just one or two horizontal intrinsics each time. These strengthen the segment in its most stable position and then as control builds up, you progress to the toe touches from a standing position. By then the reaction time will have improved in the deep muscles and the defence mechanisms of the weak segment will be more advanced. When the general level of irritability of the problem segment is on the wane, the horizontal intrinsics provide the higher levels of strength and endurance.
Spinal intrinsics should never be done more often than once every week to ten days; otherwise your back will remain sore. The strenuous segment-shutting action of multifidus at the back of the interspaces can act as an irritant which keeps the back inflamed.
Always follow each session with lengthy periods of knees rocking and spinal rolling but if your back takes more than a few days to settle, you should reduce the number of repetitions from ten to five. If the reaction is still too extreme, then you should extend the time period between sessions to two, possibly three weeks.
You can only strengthen the muscles around a weak segment at the rate it can take it, otherwise your back will remain angrily on guard and you will sense no improvement at all.
The Way You Strengthen the Intrinsics:
- Lie face down on a firm surface such as a sturdy table.
- Place a pillow at the edge of the table and with somebody holding your feet, move up the table so your two hip bones are on the pillow.
- Allow your upper body to drop down towards the floor, putting a hand out to take your weight on the floor.
- Fold your arms across your chest and let your upper body hang down, making an angle of 90° at the hips.
- From this starting position, tighten your buttocks and pull your tummy in, rolling your pelvis back.
- Continuing this very powerful contraction, unfurl along the length of your spine one vertebra at a time, with your head coming up last. Do not attempt to hyperextend beyond the horizontal position.
- To return to the floor, duck the head down and do the movement in reverse.
- At the bottom of the cycle, hang for a moment, completely relaxed, before continuing.
- Repeat ten times, but less if your back reacts after each session.
As a progression:
- Increase the leverage and make the exercise more difficult by interlacing the fingers behind the neck with the elbows wide.
- Unfurl to horizontal but do not hyperextend beyond that line.
- You may do six of this version and as your back tires, go back to folding your arms on the chest for the other six.
TIP: Remember to follow this exercise with at least a minute of gentle rocking knees to the chest to ‘unclench’ the Erector Spinae muscles after this very physically demanding job!
Your own physical condition and diagnosis may require specific modifications or precautions. Before undertaking any course of self-treatment you should consult a doctor or a physiotherapist.