Marta Montenegro: Do Not Let Back Pain Limit You

Are you afraid of squatting because of getting a low back pain (LBP)? You blame the exercise and put it on your forbidden list. But oftentimes the move itself is not the problem.

In a recent study “Core Stability Exercises in Individuals With and Without Chronic Nonspecific Low Back Pain” published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, trunk muscle activity was measured in five very common exercises: quadruped, side bridge, modified push-up, squat and standing shoulder front raise. The study compared a pain-free group and a group diagnosed with lower back pain.

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The researchers thought that those with lower back pain would show a higher trunk muscle activity level to help overcome stiffness, imbalances and limited range of motion. However, the study concluded that trunk muscle activity and lumbar range of motion was not different between groups for any exercise. Also none of the exercises worsened the symptoms of the LBP group.

So not only are these exercises safe for LBP sufferers, they can help with the pain by the strengthening of the trunk. In fact, the exercises in the study are a great place to start on the road to a pain-free back as they force a high level of neuro-muscular stimulation. This means you can work more muscles in less time (no extra ab work necessary) and also experience a higher level of caloric expenditure. Not to mention, a stronger midsection will translate into making everyday tasks like lifting a baby much easier and safer.

Should you “brace” the core?

“Bracing the core” is a very popular guideline that fitness experts use when talking about many exercises. There has been some debate on whether this tensing of the midsection actually has real benefits. The study found that when participants performed the squat and shoulder raises while bracing there was higher core muscle activity.

But, will bracing the abdominals increase trunk muscle activity? The authors of the study thought that this was a yes. Nevertheless, in the same study, they found that among all participants bracing the abdominals didn’t bring any benefit unless symptoms of spinal instability were identified.

Bracing the abdominals refer to tensing these and the back muscles without drawing in or flaring out the muscles. Even though, overall there was not an added trunk muscle activity reported when bracing the abs, performing the squat and shoulder raises using this technique showed a higher core muscle activity.

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So it makes sense to brace your abs to help your body handle the additional stress of the workload when doing standing exercises like squats, shoulder raises and deadlifts.

Added benefits

Participants in the study performed the exercises with just their body weight and held contractions for a few seconds to assess the trunk muscle activity. This is the most recommended way to work these muscles in a rehabbing process. However, for LBP-free individuals, the moves can be incorporated in your workout routine or do them as an overall body-strengthening workout with core emphasis involvement.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website,, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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