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Trunk and Core Strengthening

It seemed like for a while the biggest fitness craze was core stability training with every fitness and rehab guru flooding the internet and social media with exercises using every combination of positions, movements, and equipment possible. I’m sure I saw someone doing quadruped bird dogs with ankle/wrist weights with a resistance band pulling them one way while maintaining balance on a BOSU ball that a buddy was unpredictably tapping to create perturbations on an unstable service. Yeah, exercises like that can be effective and meet the intent, but it doesn’t need to be that complicated. Additionally, oftentimes such exercises can be too challenging and complex for the “Average Joe”. In this article, we’ll dive into a simple way to progress trunk and core stability exercises. But first, let us quickly dive into a quick anatomy review and the why behind the importance of maintaining a strong trunk.

The trunk musculature can be divided into two categories based on their primary function: movers and stabilizers (note: each trunk muscle can have both a mover and stabilizer function but has a primary role of one over the other). The movers are the bigger muscles located more externally and primarily work to move the body in different directions. This includes the abdominals (flex the spine), paraspinals (extend the spine), and the obliques (side bend and rotate the spine). Stabilizers are deeper and function to maintain a spinal trunk position at rest and during movement. These include the transverse abdominis (TrA), quadratus lumborum (QL), and the lumbar multifidi (LM) muscles.

When looking at the trunk and reviewing its function, it helps to view the entire system as a three-dimensional cylinder around the spine and guts. The abs and anterior portion of the TrA comprise the front of the cylinder, the obliques with the lateral TrA fibers make up the outer walls, and the LM and paraspinals solidify the backside. Like a soda can, this cylinder also has a top (diaphragm) and a bottom (pelvic floor musculature). A healthy and properly functioning cylinder will be able to generate pressure against all walls within it, locking down and stabilizing the trunk during exertion (like the stiffness of a full unopened soda can). A poorly pressured cylinder will not be as strong and stiff (like the walls of an empty opened can). Now, the cylinder does not need to be fully pressurized all day, everyday but only when needed to complete the task. And the amount of pressure generated can and should be based on the demand. For example, generating 100% pressure and stiffness is needed for a max deadlift effort but not for picking up an empty laundry basket. Having an appropriately pressurized cylinder will reduce injury risk by maintaining proper mechanics and evenly distributing the force to the right load-bearing structures.

Now, how do we initiate a trunk strengthening program correctly with a good progression? There are certainly different strategies and approaches out there. For the most part, there isn’t a necessarily “right” or “wrong” way as long as the exercise and dosing is appropriate for the person. For example, it may not be a good idea to perform heavy deadlifts right away for a deconditioned individual with acute low back pain. I personally view trunk strengthening progression as a three phase process:

Phase 1: Isometric holds maintaining a static position for a designated period of time, starting with a shorter time then increasing duration to build endurance and confidence. Examples include front planks, side planks, and back bridges.

Phase 2: Build off the isometric holds from Phase 1 by incorporating an unweighted or minimally resisted dynamic limb movement. The purpose is to train the trunk to remain stable and strong while moving the arms and legs. Examples include bird dogs, dead bugs, and rolling planks.

Phase 3: This phase is where I introduce more dynamic movements and heavier loads to challenge the trunk strength and endurance. These are oftentimes referred to as more “functional” exercises as they replicate natural movements and carry over to tasks we commonly perform during the day. With these exercises, the trunk is usually not the primary focus or working muscle group but serves more of  a supporting role (but extremely important, nonetheless!). Examples include kettlebell swings, deadlifts, and weighted carries.

Check out the videos below for examples of this outlined progression for the lateral and posterior trunk musculature.

 

 

As you can see, phasing a trunk strengthening program like above helps progressively build up the trunk strength and endurance appropriately. It doesn’t seem smart to overload a patient or client with heavy deadlifts if they aren’t able to hold a basic unweighted back bridge for more than ten seconds, right? Overloading a patient or client too soon without the proper baseline strength and endurance will increase injury risk, aggravate an existing injury, create frustration, and/or compromise trust with the provider/trainer. Let’s train and rehab smarter!

This isn’t rocket science but hopefully seeing a phased trunk strengthening progression is beneficial for you. The goal is to start small and progressively build strength and confidence while keeping it simple!

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The Pain is in Your Head!

We oftentimes hear the phrase “pain is in your head” used to motivate others around us while suffering
through a physically intense endeavor. I frequently heard this or similar renditions while in the Army
during training events like our semi-annual fitness tests, long unit runs, and grueling ruck marches. The
meaning of statements like this is to reinforce the power of the mind over the body, to mentally fight
through the physical discomfort. However, it turns out that pain is actually experienced in our heads and
NOT actually where pain is felt. Pain truly is in our heads. Now bear with me as I elaborate.

You see, the painful body part is too “dumb” and not equipped to produce pain. Let’s use tweaking the
low back while lifting something heavy, for example. Within the tissues of the low back are special
receptors and nerves that simply detect whatever might be a threat to the body. This includes local
chemical responses from inflammation, exposure to high forces of pressure, and extreme heat or cold.
These nerves detect this stimulus but do not know how to utilize this information; however, they know
who does…. the brain! So, these low back nerves that detected a potential threat send a signal away
from the local area to the spinal cord which then relays the message up to the brain for further
processing. Once received, the brain makes note of where the message is coming from, what type of
message was received (a potential threat!), and the current situation (bending over picking up
something heavy). It quickly processes the message to produce the output of pain.

Believe it or not, pain is a blessing protecting us from further harm. If it wasn’t for pain, I wouldn’t be
able to detect the sharp rusty nail I am stepping on and quickly pull my foot away from it, preventing
getting tetanus. Without pain, I wouldn’t know if my appendix was about to rupture, potentially causing
a fatal event. Pain forces me to the doctor to get the appropriate treatment. Pain prevents us from
running on a sprained ankle, causing further harm to sensitive tissue. Without pain to protect us and
guide us, we wouldn’t have survived long as a species!

Not only can the brain receive and process information from pain receptors and nerves, it is also the
body’s headquarters for processing any and all information related to our senses, movement, internal
health, cognitive processing, emotional state, and overall well-being. The brain will use other information
to fine tune the output and can amplify, distort, or weaken the output based on this other data. It can
also suppress the pain output in a life or death situation. For example, a Soldier being shot in the arm in
combat may not realize it until after the firefight is over. During this scenario, the arm’s pain receptors
and nerves detected the threat and relayed the information to the brain for processing. However, the
brain quickly “decided” the arm is less threatening than the potentially fatal situation it was facing, so it
dampened the pain output to deal with it later, when not in a life and death situation.

Because the pain is processed in our heads as well as EVERYTHING else, there can be some crosstalk
between different processes simultaneously occurring that can greatly impact the pain output. For
example, a person with both chronic back pain and depression may experience more back pain if their
depression worsens. What is it about being more depressed that causes more back pathology? Nothing!
But because both the depression and the back pain are processed in the brain, they can oftentimes
negatively impact each other. The opposite is true, too. Feeling more hopeful and optimistic can have a positive effect on chronic pain. This is why managing chronic pain should include a holistic approach (a
topic certainly worth its own article).

Of course, the physiology of experiencing pain is much more complex than explained here, but hopefully
this simple description helps identify the complexity of pain and how it’s not necessarily all about the
painful body part. It’s important to remember this while going through the rehabilitation and recovery
process, especially when there is a lack of progress, worsening of symptoms, or when dealing with other
health issues simultaneously (physical, mental, spiritual, etc.).

So, in summary, the pain you and I feel is actually in our heads. No, we are not all crazy, and the pain
experienced is actual legit pain. We just need to remember this as we recover and heal as there can be
many other factors that can influence the rehab process and pain symptoms. By understanding and
acknowledging this, we are able to identify non-pathological reasons why pain may worsen, and this
gives us a little more control over what often seems to be an uncontrollable situation.

For more information, check out this 5-minute animated video:

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You Threw Your Back Out! Now What?

Most of us have experienced that sudden unexpected sharp low back pain and the inability to fully stand up erect afterward. If you haven’t yet, chances are you likely will at some point. Unfortunately, we oftentimes do not expect it to happen as it either occurs with the most obscure unthreatening activities (picking up a pencil, wresting with your kids, getting out of the car, etc.) or when we believe we are physically prepared to take on load (deadlifting, squatting, etc.) but the aftermath tells us otherwise. So, when it happens, what should you do?

First, don’t panic. Take a moment to catch your breath and evaluate the situation. Yes, it can be extremely painful and alarming but 99.999% of the time it isn’t life threatening. To assist ruling out more severe pathology (cancer, spinal cord injury, etc.), think about the how the pain started and the resulting symptoms. Below are some criteria to help:

  • Is the pain associated with a low-traumatic specific cause or mechanism (picking something up, twisting, etc.)?
  • Does the pain change with movement and/or position (ex: worsens with bending, better with sitting, better with walking, worse in the morning, etc.)?
  • Are you experiencing any other concerning symptoms (ex: changes in bowel/bladder function, nausea/vomiting, numbness/tingling, unexplained weight fluctuations, paralysis or severe sudden weakness, dizziness, headaches, etc.)?

If you can answer “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the third, then the pain is likely “mechanical”, meaning it is not life threatening and is associated with the movement-related parts of the body. More severe and worrisome causes of back pain typically present as a constant unrelenting pain without an identifiable cause, pain that does not change regardless of movement/position, and pain along with other worrisome symptoms like those in question three above. Additionally, high-velocity traumatic causes of back pain (high-speed car accident, fall from high surface, etc.) should also be medically evaluated to rule out fractures. If you deem your pain as life threatening or suspect a fracture, definitely get it medically evaluated as soon as possible. If not, then congrats! You are the proud owner of acute low back pain and should keep reading.

Next, keep moving. Old school medical advice directed back pain patients to stay off their feet and oftentimes prescribed “bed rest” for prolonged periods. Turns out this treatment strategy is more harmful than good. Current medical literature supports continued activity, starting with lower level activities and gradually increasing workload until back to prior level of function. Sitting and laying around avoiding aggravating movements may seem logical to allow the body to heal; however, it’s common for individuals to actually feel WORSE after prolonged periods of rest. The longer you stay away from being active, the higher the risk of becoming deconditioned, weaker, and stiffer while potentially developing fear avoidance behaviors and acute depression if avoiding activities typically enjoyed.

With that said, it is not wise to continuously push through painful movements with the “pain is weakness leaving the body” mentality. Doing so can aggravate healing tissues (similar to picking a healing scab) as well as increase your body’s sensitivity to movement, resulting in higher pain levels. (Note: Pain is a very complicated output of the brain after it receives/processes multiple stimuli, to include pain receptors. The complexity is a whole other article on its own, but you can trust me on this!). So, the goal is to avoid the far ends of the activity spectrum: not enough and too much. Like Goldilocks, you need to find the middle “just right” point that keeps you moving without overdoing it. Light range of motion exercises and stretching is typically recommended along with light cardiovascular exercise like walking or riding a stationary bike. Check out the video below for some good exercises commonly prescribed for acute low back pain.

While going through the recovery process, it’s crucial to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle to promote a good healing response. Because physical activity is usually restricted initially, maintaining a well-balanced diet is key to prevent unnecessary weight gain and provide the body the right nutrients to optimize healing. Binge watching Netflix and eating a tub of ice cream is not a good approach. Sleep, too, is very important. One of our biggest healing-promoting hormones is Growth Hormone which naturally spikes during our deep sleep cycles. Additionally, our biggest stress hormone Cortisol (which limits recovery) naturally lowers while asleep. Reducing and disrupting sleep patterns therefore decreases the body’s natural ability to heal by reducing the “good” hormone we need while maintaining elevated levels of the “bad” hormone. I also recommend avoiding tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption as both can reduce blood flow and the oxygen/nutrients delivered by the cardiovascular system, resulting in delayed healing.

The last piece of advice I can offer is to stay positive, be patient, and embrace the roller coaster ride of recovery. You will get better, it may just take some time. Each injury and person are unique; therefore, timelines, progression, and symptoms will vary. And if you have a history of low back pain episodes, each recovery will be different. Mindset is HUGE when injured (go back to the previous comment about the complexity of pain output). Feeling down and out mentally can carry over to how you feel physically. Also, remember that recovery is not a smooth ride with predictable improvements each day but more like a bumpy roller coaster ride with ups, downs, and loopy-loops (see below image). It’s common to experience a “bad day” after a “good day”. This does not indicate further harm or reinjury but is a common response as the body progresses.

So, in summary, tweaking your back happens. And, unfortunately, it sucks. However, you will recover. The body is amazing and able to heal despite all the day-to-day abuse thrown its way. There are things you can do to promote the recovery progress as described above: stay moderately active, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and have a positive mindset. Typical acute pain episodes improve over one to three weeks. If your pain persists longer, intensifies, or progresses to include “red flag” symptoms (see question 3 above), you should consult a medical provider to further assist.

Shameless Physical Therapy Plug: Seeing a physical therapist early in the back pain episode can further assist in the recovery process. If your state and health insurance allow for direct access to physical therapy without a referral (like South Carolina), I encourage seeking a physical therapist first to avoid delayed care and possibly unnecessary imaging and medication prescriptions.

I hope this is helpful. Definitely reach out to us at Vertex PT Specialists if you have any questions or concerns. Or if you are in the Columbia, SC area, we would love to help you out if your back pain continues to nag you!


Dr. Pat Casey, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, SFMA, CF-L1
pat.casey@vertexpt.com
803.973.0100