When I herniated a lumbar disc a few years ago, I had a steep learning curve about how to treat this condition. I learned a lot about how to treat, and prevent further harm, to a damaged low back. What was helpful was acupuncture, good posture, walking (unless that made things worse in the really acute phase), an anti-inflammatory diet and, at the beginning of the trauma, a Prednisone “dose-pack” (which did not help the second time I foolishly damaged my back with too many yoga back-bends). I also tried a steroid shot in my back which unfortunately did not help. However, the purpose of this post was to give you the single MOST effective low back stabilizer, which I am convinced is why I can run and do yoga without pain today. This is a very simple series of 14 “core toning” exercises. This is for the recovery and long-term maintenance phase: not advised in the acute phase, during which icing your low back twice daily and being very gentle with movement will help most. However, once you get over the acute injury, you need to get into a routine that will minimize the chances of going through acute phases again.
The core stabilizing routine is nothing fancy: most of you will have performed all of these exercises before. The trick is to do them every single day without fail and in the order given. Once you have done this sequence a few times, you will have it memorized — and all you need is a little floor space. The first 7 exercises are done standing, the second 7 on the floor. Here they are:
1) Standing tall, pull the tailbone back and the heart forward, letting your arms and head dangle. If possible, keep the back of the legs straight, and reach for the floor. You can rest your hands on your thighs or shins, or, if your hamstrings are flexible, plop your palms on the floor. Breathe into the stretch for 4-5 breaths then roll up the spine, leaving the head to lift last.
2) Hold lightly onto the edge of a table or chair back and, one leg at a time, press the back of the leg away, pushing away from the back of the heel. Don’t sway to the side. Stay upright, as though you were toning your bottom on the side of the leg pressing back, which is in fact what you are doing. Go for about 15 push-backs on one side, then switch legs. Stay upright on the standing leg and push the working leg straight back.
3) Same idea, but now moving the leg to the side, leading with the baby-toe edge of the foot, one leg at a time. About 15 times on each side. Towards the end of the sequence you should feel a little burn in the working muscles.
4) Standing tall but with the knees slightly flexed, toes pointed straight forward, twist at the waist and punch both hands behind you at just above waist level. Look towards your punch. Repeat on the other side. Left and right counts as “one.” Repeat the 2-sided twist 10 times.
5) Standing tall feet slightly apart, knees slightly bent, push your hips right and lean your upper body over to the left as far as possible without making this a forward bend. It’s strictly a side bend. If possible, add the weight of your arm. So, if your body is side bending to the left, your right arm will reach up and over your right ear, reaching to the left. Repeat 5 times in a row on one side, then 5 times in a row on the other side.
6) Simple hamstring stretch: put one foot at a time up on a chair or table, turn your body square to the up-stretched leg, then reach forward for that foot with both hands. You can rest your hands on the shin too. Breathe a few times, always directing the breath to the area of the leg (usually the back or side) that feels tight. Repeat with the other leg.
7) Standing tall, bend one knee, heel towards the butt, and catch the foot with one or both hands. If not wanting to practice balance, keep the free hand on the table or chair back. If your quads are not tight, you can increase this stretch by pulling the heel into the butt and/or pressing the bend leg hip forward a bit. Repeat on the other leg.
8 ) Now to the floor. The next 2 exercises are crunches, and it’s all downhill from there! First, do NOT heave your chest up to the thighs with crunches. That is BAD for your low back. You are on your back, knees bent and feet at least hip width apart, not far from the buttocks. Lift your head and shoulder blades off the floor and place your fingertips behind and slightly above your ears. Try to keep your shoulder blades off the floor throughout this exercise. The idea is to tone the abdominal muscles, which means tightening them. This is a horizontal move. By that I mean you slide the bottom of your ribcage towards the hip bones on the exhale. Inhale relax but don’t lie down. Stay up and perform 20 to 80 of these sliding crunches. Towards the end of your sequence you should start to feel a little burn in the abs.
9) Stay in the crunch position and begin bicycling the legs, stretching way out through the heels. The more your feet point to the ceiling, the easier. As you lower your legs to the floor you will feel more strain. Do not strain! You want to challenge, but NOT re-injure yourself! If the bicycling is OK, you can then b ring the elbows to the opposite knees, one at a time. Left and right is one round. Go for 10 to 40 rounds. Then relax.
10) Hug your knees to your chest. Breathe several deep breaths.
11) Place your feet on the floor, at least hip width apart, and lift your hips to make a flat diagonal plane with your front body. Lower, and repeat for a total of 3-4 times.
12) Roll up to sitting and stretch out one leg long in front of you. Bend the other leg, placing that foot on the upper inner thigh of the long leg. Turn towards the long leg and reach for the foot or shin with both hands. Breathe a few times and repeat on the other side.
13) Find a comfortable cross-legged position, sit tall and twist to the right, putting your left hand on the outside of the right knee to help strengthen the twist. Repeat on the other side.
14) Both legs long in front of you on the floor, reach your hand up and, leading with your heart, reach for the feet or shins with both hands. On the inhale expand the ribcage, and on the exhale undulate your chest closer to the knees. Take several breaths here. That’s it! You are saving your low back! Good job!