Low back pain (LBP) is a very common problem that affects most of us at some point in life and for some, it’s a daily issue. Through education and research, researchers have found low back-specific exercises can not only help get rid of LBP but can also prevent future exacerbations or episodes. Like brushing our teeth, low back exercises are equally important in order to maintain, preserve, and optimize function. But because there are SO MANY exercise options available, it’s hard to know which ones are best, especially for each specific person.
There are different methods for determining the right low back exercises for the patient. One of the most common is to try different exercises to determine individual tolerance, but this is not very specific, as it only determines whether or not the patient is comfortable with an exercise. Another is using physical performance tests (PPTs) that measure the strength and endurance of specific muscle groups, muscle shortness, balance, aerobic capacity, and spinal range of motion.
Physical performance tests are much more specific because they address each patient’s differences. Also, many PPTs include normative data to compare against the patient’s own performance, so repeat use of the abnormal PPTs on a monthly interval can gauge their progress (or the lack thereof), which is motivating to the patient and serves as a great outcome measure!
PPTs are typically done two to four weeks after an initial presentation or at a time when the condition is stable so as not to irritate the condition. Initially, the decision as to which exercise is best is often made by something called “directional preference” or positional bias. This simply means if a patient feels best by bending over, we initially give “flexion-biased” exercises.
Flexion-biased exercises include (partial list): pulling the knees to the chest (single then double), posterior pelvic tilts (flattening the low back into the floor), sitting and/or standing bend overs, hamstring stretches, and more. If a person’s low back feels best bending backwards, their doctor of chiropractic may give extension-biased exercises, which include (partial list): standing back bends, saggy push-ups (prone press-ups), and/or laying on pillows or a gym ball on their back, arching over the ball.
Chiropractors generally add exercises gradually once they’ve determined tolerance and will recheck to make sure the patient is doing them correctly. Studies show that spinal manipulation achieves great short-term results, but when exercise is added to the treatment plan, the patient can achieve a more satisfying long-term result. Unfortunately, other studies have shown that ONLY 4% of patients continue their exercises after pain is satisfactorily managed and they fall back into old habits of not exercising.