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An Important Exercise for Back Pain

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Excessive sitting contributes to back pain and is an independent risk factor for ill health and premature death
  • Foundation Training exercises — simple yet powerful structural movements that help strengthen and realign your posture — can help compensate for long hours spent sitting and significantly reduce back pain
  • Foundation Training focuses on your core and posterior chain, which includes all the muscles that connect to your pelvis. The exercises train all those muscles to work together through integrated chains of movement, which is how you’re structurally designed to move
  • Every exercise in Foundation Training adds as many muscles into a given movement as possible, dispersing more force throughout your body, taking friction away from your joints and putting that tension into your muscles instead
  • Structural breathing will further help improve your posture, especially while seated

Foundation Training,1 developed by Dr. Eric Goodman, a chiropractic physician, to address his own chronic back pain, is a simple yet powerful approach that can significantly decrease back pain. It’s also profoundly useful for anyone who spends more than three hours sitting each day, whether you have back pain yet or not.

Studies have confirmed prolonged sitting is an independent risk factor for chronic disease,2,3 premature aging4 and early death, as it shuts down a number of basic bodily functions at the molecular level. Excessive sitting, especially with poor posture, is also a primary cause of back pain.5

While it might seem like sitting is more relaxing than standing, you’re actually placing 40% to 90% more pressure and stress on your back when sitting than when standing.6

Sitting or standing in a hunched-forward position also contributes to pain in other areas, such as your neck, shoulders, jaw, knees or shins, for example. Headaches can also be triggered. All of these painful issues can be sourced back to postural imbalances, including shortening of your anterior (front) chain of muscles and the suboccipital muscles in the back of your neck.

Your core is anything that connects to your pelvis, whether above or below it, and this includes your hamstrings, glutes and adductor muscles. Foundation Training teaches all those muscles to work together through integrated chains of movement, which is how you’re structurally designed to move.

By integrating the muscular chains of your body, Foundation Training strengthens and realigns your spine and core, which in turn may alleviate any back pain you may have. No equipment is needed, so you can do these exercises just about anywhere, at any time.

Three Principles of Foundation Training

The three principles of Foundation Training are:

1. Anchoring — Perform the exercises barefoot and, ideally, walk barefoot as often as you can. With your shoes off, pay attention to pushing your feet into the ground. Most people have weak feet with poor grip strength. Think of your feet as anchors for your entire body in a sea of gravity. So, push back against gravity. Stand as big, broad and as tall as you can. Try to really grab the ground with your feet by activating your arches, toes and ankles.

2. Decompression — The basic principle here is to actively lift your rib cage up, engaging your sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles (the superficial cervical muscles in your neck responsible for your ability to rotate and flex your head) and breathing into your rib cage while tightening your belly. As you exhale, do not allow your belly and torso to sag.

3. Integration — This is where the Foundation exercises come into play, which integrate the muscular chains in the front and back of your body.

According to Goodman, most people will notice a difference in their body within a week or two. Within three weeks, you should notice profound differences, provided you’re doing the exercises five to 10 minutes every single day. You don’t need to worry about recovery here, as you’re not exercising your muscles to failure, where you’re breaking down microfibrils in your muscles that would need time to repair.

You’re simply repatterning, teaching your body how to move better. Postural exercises such as those described here are critical for properly supporting your frame during daily activities, and will also allow you to safely perform high-intensity exercises without risking injury due to poor postural movement.

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Muscles That Contribute to Core Stability

As mentioned, every muscle that directly connects to your pelvis is part of your core. All of the following muscles are strengthened and lengthened through Foundation Training exercises:

  • Glutes — These are the powerhouses of your body, but they do not work alone.
  • Adductors — Your inner thigh muscles are your built-in traction system. When the adductor group of muscles remains strong you have increased hip stability, stronger arches in the feet and a pelvic brace using a couple of the strongest muscles in your body.
  • Deep lower back muscles — These muscles facilitate the proper integration of the posterior chain of muscles. A weak lower back changes every aspect of your movement patterns for the worse.
  • Abdominals and hip flexors — Think of the front of your body as a window that shows what is happening in your spine and pelvis. If your front is too tight, your back muscles cannot work properly.
  • Transverse abdominal muscles — Your transverse abdominals act as a built-in bracing system. When your transverse abdominus is tightened against the other muscles among this core group, the entire system is strengthened.

The Core Foundation Training Exercise — The Founder

One of the core Foundation Training exercises is called “The Founder.” For a demonstration, see the featured video. It helps reinforce proper movement while strengthening the entire back of your body by dispersing your weight through the posterior muscle chains. As a result, your weight shifts back toward your heels and “untucks” your pelvis.

By doing so, you lengthen your hip flexors, gaining length at the front of your body, which in turn allows your hips to hinge properly. As noted by Goodman, when it comes to your core, it all comes down to your hips — your athletic ability, flexibility, balance and strength are all dependent on having powerful hips.

The following is a quick summary of how to perform The Founder, which both stretches and strengthens as the same time. For a demonstration, be sure to watch the featured video. Hold each position for 10 to 20 seconds.

1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Thrust your buttocks out behind you, bending at the hips, while lengthening your torso, opening your chest and lifting your sternum; arms stretched backward with thumbs pointing out.

The forward fold should be the result of pushing your hips back, not leaning forward. Your knees should be positioned above your heels, not beyond your toes, as when squatting. Knees should be soft but not overly bent. You should feel tension in your lower back in this posture.

2. Shift your arms forward, as high as you can overhead, thumbs pointing inward toward each other, while pushing your buttocks out, lengthening through your back. This will intensify the pressure in your back. Engage the hamstrings by lightly squeezing your knees together and straightening your legs ever so slightly.

3. Bending at the hips, slowly fold forward until your hands touch the floor (or as close to the floor as you can get). Make sure your weight remains focused on your heels opposed to your toes.

4. Gently straighten your knees as much as you can, pushing your hips away from your heels. You’ll likely feel the muscles at the back of your legs start to tremble. This shaking is your body adapting to a longer tension.

5. Walk your hands forward, pushing your hips backward, until your hips and hands are as far apart as possible. Make sure you keep your knees slightly bent the whole time.

6. Place your hands on your shins, keeping your weight back on your heels. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to widen your chest as you slowly raise your chest up. Make sure you’re extending your back. As you feel the muscles in your lower back engage, push your hands out behind you as in step 1. Push your knees back to keep your weight on your heels.

7. Shift into position 2, pushing your arms as high as you can overhead while pushing your knees back. Hold for a few seconds, then stand up.

Acute Back Pain? Do This 2-Minute Exercise Daily

The next exercise demonstrated by Goodman is a slightly modified Founder that is particularly beneficial for those with chronic back pain and/or limited range of motion, be it due to age, pain or excess weight. For acute back pain, Goodman recommends doing this exercise as much as 10 to 20 times a day. Hold each position for 10 to 20 seconds.

  1. Stand feet shoulder-width apart, facing a chair. Lightly squat, pushing your buttocks back, keeping your back straight. Place the fingertips of your hands on the front edge of seat of the chair.
  2. With your knees slightly bent, the weight on your heels, walk your fingertips across the seat, away from you as you push your hips back.
  3. Once you’ve reached the limit of your stretch, lift your torso, extending your lower spine, and push your hands out behind you to widen your chest as much as possible. Be sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  4. Shift your arms forward, as high as you can overhead, thumbs pointing inward toward each other, while pushing your buttocks out, lengthening through your back. This will intensify the pressure in your back. Engage the hamstrings by lightly squeezing your knees together and straightening your legs ever so slightly.
  5. Slowly stand up, lowering your arms as you raise your torso.

As discussed in the video, sweating is one barometer for how well you’re doing the exercise. The reason for this is because the more muscles your body engages, the greater your exertion, resulting in sweating.

As you get more used to the exercise and your strength increases, you will naturally start to engage more and more of the smaller muscles in your muscles chains. Shaking or trembling is the best indicator, Goodman says, and the stronger you are, the more you’ll tremble.

Adductor-Assisted Exercises

A third variation of The Founder is to perform it with a wider stance, which engages a different set of muscles, including your adductors (inner thigh muscles).

Here, as you reach position 2, as detailed in the section directly above, you can further improve your range of movement by slowly rolling your feet from side to side as you push your knees back, alternating stretching the outside and inside of your legs. It should be more of an ankle movement than a knee movement.

Another exercise that engages your inner thigh muscles is the adductor-assisted back extension. This exercise teaches you to use your built-in traction system that involves your adductors and hamstrings.

  1. Lie on your stomach on the floor. Squeeze your knees together as you bend your knees at a 45-degree angle. Dorsiflex your ankles (pull your toes toward your shins).
  2. Bend your arms, keeping your elbows and hands close to your chest, as if you’re about to do a pushup.
  3. Simultaneously, squeeze your knees together with knees bent and lift your torso off the ground without using your arms by engaging your back muscles.
  4. For even greater resistance, stretch your arms out overhead, palms up, while keeping your torso lifted.

Improve Your Posture With Structural Breathing

Breathing is another oft-ignored tool that can affect your posture for better or worse. In the video above, Goodman demonstrates structural breathing, which will help improve your posture, especially while seated. Here’s a summary of the key steps:

  1. Sitting down, place your thumbs at the base of your rib cage, pinkies at your waist. Think of the space between your fingers as a measuring stick.
  2. Pull your chin back and take three deep breaths.
  3. As you breathe in, the distance between your thumbs and pinkies should increase.
  4. As you breathe out, tighten your abdominal muscles to prevent your core from collapsing back down.

When done properly, your breath will help lengthen your hip flexors, and then support your core using your transverse abdominal muscles. This will strengthen your back and keep your chest high and open. Do this exercise for 30 seconds or so, then go back to your normal seated position. With time, those muscles will get stronger and your seated posture will gradually improve.