It happens to the best of us. The dreaded moment we wake up, make the first move to get out of bed and then it hits us. The lower, middle or upper cervical pain that has the power to ruin our day or even put us out of commission for a few days. So, how do we protect, strengthen and maintain our back?
A thorough warm-up is one of the most crucial parts in maintaining a healthy back, not to mention healthy muscles and joints throughout the rest of your body. All it takes is five minutes to give your spine a proper warm-up, preparing it for the cardio or weightlifting workout ahead.
Understand How Your Spine Moves
When crafting a warm-up routine for the spine, it’s important to understand the different ways it can move. You can extend the spine backward, flex it forward, bend it to the left or right side and rotate it to the left or right. If you only bend the spine forward and backward, but never rotate it or bend it to the side, you’re limiting what the spine is truly capable of.
You’ll need to move your spine quite a bit during a workout. Running requires a fair amount of rotation, as do exercises like the lunge and dumbbell row. The deadlift and squat can cause some flexing of the spine, as do many ab exercises, so be sure to prepare for each different movement of the spine.
If you work at a desk or have another relatively sedentary job, chances are you don’t move many of your joints through their full ranges of motion. But when you work out, you tend to use much greater ranges of motion. So your warm-up needs to include motions that you wouldn’t normally do on a day-to-day basis. For example, the neck and lower back are naturally extended backward, so you should try to gently flex them forward.
In this warm-up, you’ll flex the cervical and lumbar spine in the egg roll and toe touch and extend the thoracic spine in the foam roller back extension. Finally, you’ll practice rotating your spine with a simple rock-back rotation and the slightly more complex Spiderman stretch with a rotation.
1. Egg Roll
Tuck and roll in this stretch to gently massage and lengthen your back. Keep your abs slightly contracted to help release any tight back muscles.
HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back on a soft surface. Hug your knees to your chest. Gently rock back and forth, gaining momentum each time, until you are rolling over the entire length of your spine with each rock back and forth. Roll for about one minute.
2. Foam Roller Back Extension
If you don’t have a foam roller you can tape two tennis balls together or use a rolled-up blanket.
HOW TO DO IT: Sit on the ground with your knees bent and feet planted. Put a foam roller just above your lower back where your bottom ribs are. Lie back on the roller and reach your arms up overhead.
Gently bend backward over the roller while exhaling. Push your arms back and toward the ground. Come back up and move the foam roller up your back a few inches. Repeat this until the roller is in line with your shoulders. Perform this entire series twice.
3. Toe Touch
Not only does this exercise help you warm up your back, it stretches some of the muscles around it, such as the hamstrings, which may also be tight.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your feet together without locking your knees. Reach your arms up overhead and look up. Fold forward and reach your hands toward the ground. At the same time, push your hips back and shift your weight into your heels. When you feel that you can’t reach any lower, roll up slowly and reach your arms up. Do 15 of these.
4. Rock-Back Rotation
This exercise prevents your lower back from moving too much, emphasizing rotation of the middle segment of your spine, known as the thoracic spine. This segment of the spine is much better at rotating than the lumbar spine, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.
HOW TO DO IT: Start on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Rock your butt back onto your heels, keeping your hands planted. Put your right hand behind your head and turn your shoulders and head to the right as far as possible as you exhale. Come back to the center and switch sides. Do 10 rotations on each side.
Gently arch and round your back in this stretch.
HOW DO TO IT: Get on the ground on your hands and knees. Round your back and breathe out through your mouth. Then, arch your back and inhale through your nose. Perform 10 repetitions.
In this exercise, you'll reach your arms up and pretend you're climbing a ladder to practice bending your spine side-to-side.
HOW DO TO IT: Stand with a tall posture and reach your arms high up. Reach with your arms, one at a time, alternating each time. The goal is to reach as high as possible moving your shoulders and spine to help you reach higher. Perform 10 reaches with each arm.
7. World's Greatest Stretch
Not only does this exercise help you warm up your back, it also stretches your hips and shoulders.
HOW DO TO IT: Take a large, lunging step forward with your right foot. Bend the right knee to drop down into a lunge position. Place the left hand on the ground. Turn your shoulders and torso toward the right leg and reach your right arm up toward the ceiling. Perform five repetitions on each side.
8. Spiderman Stretch With Rotation
Stretch your hips, back and shoulders with this all-encompassing stretch.
HOW TO DO IT: Start in a push-up position. Plant your left foot next to your left hand. Turn to the left and raise your left arm up toward the ceiling. Return to a push-up position. Repeat on the right side. Do 10 repetitions on each side.
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