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Spine strengthening exercises are actually exercises that strengthen the muscles that support the spine, rather than the spine itself. However, doing spine strengthening exercises is a great way to relieve back pain and prevent future back injuries, and there are many different types of exercises that can be done, including stretching and aerobic activities. In fact, a well rounded exercise program is not just important for the health of the body, but for the spine as well, because problems in the back are often related to weak muscles elsewhere, particularly the abdominal muscles and the hamstrings.
Different spine strengthening exercises will be necessary to strengthen the upper and lower spine. To tone and strengthen the muscles of the upper back, which can really help with posture, shoulder shrugs and rowing exercises are both helpful. Machines at the gym may make it easier to target these specific muscle groups. In addition, lying facedown on the floor and lifting the arms overhead and out to the sides helps to strengthen the upper back; light weights may be added as well to make the exercise even more challenging.
For many people, however, the thoracic spine is not a problem; lower back pain, or pain in the lumbar spine, is a much more frequent issue. Though it can certainly be caused by weak muscles surrounding the spine, the most common causes are tight hamstrings and weak abdominal muscles. Taken together, these pull the lower spine into an excessive curve, often causing muscle tightness, over-extension, and injury. Strengthening the transverse abdominal muscles is one of the best ways to target this; lying on the back and lifting the legs towards the ceiling is a type of reverse crunch that helps to address this issue.
Stretching the hamstrings and the hip flexor muscles are also important spine strengthening exercises. Many people find that a yoga or Pilates practice allows them to strengthen many supporting muscles around the core and the spine and lengthen tight muscles, such as the hamstrings, using a variety of different lengthening and toning exercises. Leg lifts, done standing against the wall, can also help to target these muscle groups and strengthen the muscles of the lower spine. Anyone with a back injury or back pain should consult a doctor or physical therapist before doing spine strengthening exercises of any sort, because the wrong exercises can easily do damage and make existing injuries even worse.
@MissDaphne - That's definitely a great exercise. There are variations you can do to make it more challenging, too, which is nice.
But I would encourage anyone who is interested in core strengthening exercises to take a class, or at least get a video to do at home. You get a better visual than just trying to learn moves yourself and will learn a variety of interesting moves to try.
Yoga and pilates aren't the only options. My gym has a 30-minute core class that I haven't been to, but that looks a little less touchy-feely, if that's just not your thing.
I think the best lower back exercise to start with is a variation on the cat. You start by getting down on your hands and knees. Then you raise one arm and the opposite leg. (You can find lots of pictures and directions online.) If that is too difficult, you can raise only the leg to start with.
It's a nice move because it's easy to learn and there are very few people who shouldn't do it. You can do it all the way through pregnancy, for instance, unlike a lot of other lower back exercises. (You certainly don't want to lie on your belly!)
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