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Back Strengthening Exercises After Work: Countering the Effects of Sitting

back strengthening exercisesI was at a pool party the other week when a friend of mine threw out her back.

Old (painful) memories quickly surfaced.

I cringed as I watched her struggle.

The pain felt too real. I remembered it clearly.

Sharp. Intense. It pulsated through my body. From my back all the way down my legs via the sciatic pathway I (almost) wish never existed. I knew what she was feeling. And I knew there was nothing she could do but wait it out. No amount of drugs could get rid of that stuff.

But the moment reminded me of the battle I’ve had with my own back problems.

And how far I’ve come since that dreadful injury.

Over the past few months I’ve been following a new after-work routine that has really helped relieve the tension and discomfort that builds up in my back as I slave away at the computer for hours on end at work.

And I wanted to share with you some of the back strengthening exercises I use every day.

Like most people, I unfortunately spend a lot of time in front of the computer.

Nature of the job I guess.

Sitting for prolonged periods has huge drawbacks. If you’re a ‘sitter’ (and you want to shit your pants), read this.

You’ll quickly see what kind of effect sitting has on your back and your overall health.

So it is extremely important for me to find ways to regularly offset or balance out the negative effects sitting has on my body with positive and effective back stretches and back strengthening exercises to keep my body tall, balanced, and pain-free.

I am constantly looking for ways to relieve the tension that’s built up in between my discs from hours of compression (caused by sitting). I need a way to relax the muscles and fascia that surround the lower back and are constantly tensed due to constant spinal flexion.

So I’ve come up with a short (kind of) routine composed of various stretches, exercises and soft tissue work to keep my back healthy and strong.

Here’s what my daily after-work routine looks like:

5-10 min of Foam Rolling

I start with my favorite Self Myofascial Release (SMR) tool – the foam roller. This tool allows me to apply gentle, dispersed pressure across various areas of my body.

Since sitting tends to disengage primarily the muscles of the posterior chain (lower back, glutes, hamstrings), I like to spend most of my time on those. Your focus areas will depend on your personal physiology and lifestyle habits.

Here’s a short video that highlights some of my favorite foam rolling exercises:

If you’d like to see my detailed foam rolling session, check out my foam rolling guide.

5 min of Lacrosse Ball SMR

The lacrosse ball is another great self-myofascial release tool. Unlike the foam roller, it allows me to apply greater, more concentrated pressure on some of the really tight areas on my body.

I primarily use the lacrosse ball to focus on the muscles that line the spine. I’ll lay on the lacrosse ball and then very slowly move up and down allowing the ball to run along each side of my spine.

I then move to the upper back where I focus on the shoulder blade area. I lay on the ball again but this time have it apply pressure on the muscles that line both shoulder blades.

When we sit we spend so much time flexed over with our shoulders hunched forward. This creates a lot of tension in the upper back. This exercise helps release the tension built up in there.

Here’s a video of what that looks like:

There are two other lacrosse ball release exercises I like to do.

The first exercise focuses on the hip flexor muscles. When you sit for extended periods at a time, your hips are in constant flexion. This means your hip flexor muscles (those right above your quads that allow you to bring your knees up) shorten and get really tight. Over time, these muscles remain shortened even after you get up, which completely throws your body out of proper biomechanical alignment.

The idea is to use a lacrosse ball to really dig into those hip flexor tissues and let them disperse and elongate.

This is what the exercise looks like:

The second lacrosse ball exercise I like to do focuses on the gluteus/medius release.

This exercise is great for people who suffer lower back pain, hip pain, or even knee pain which causes them to have an asymmetrical shift (where one side shifts more so than the other – this is due to muscular imbalances). Over time, this exercise will bring you back to a symmetrical shift.

Here’s what the exercise looks like:

Important note: when it comes to self-myofascial release, pain (although not too much pain) is good. It means you’ve located a trigger point – a tender area. But, for some of you, the lacrosse ball might be too much to start. If you find that’s the case, regress down to a tennis ball and then move your way up to a lacrosse ball.

The more you do these SMR exercises, the less tender the areas are going to be and the healthier your tissues will be.

Cobra Stretches or Back Bridges

A cobra stretch is a very simple exercise that helps elongate the spine. I perform 3 sets of 20-30 second holds of this stretch. Here’s what it looks like:

cobra stretch

Cobra Stretch

Every now and then, I like to change up between a cobra stretch and a back bridge.

The back bridge is also an excellent exercise for elongating and decompressing the spine. It takes a bit of time to master (I’m definitely still not there), but once you’ve worked your way up to a full back bridge you’ll be golden. (Note: you can even add an inch to your overall height by doing this exercise regularly.)

Here’s a video made by my buddy Greg that shows how you can build your way up to a full back bridge:

Back Decompressing Exercise

This is my favorite exercise for decompressing the spine and really allowing my discs to breathe and stretch out. It’s a great way to finish up my back strengthening session.

Here’s what the exercise looks like:

how to stretch your back

Spine Decompressing Exercise

 A note from a reader:

“I just want to say that after hanging for 30-60 seconds it is REALLY important (for me at least ) to touch the ground SLOWLY with the tip of your shoes and SLOWLY land and distribute again all the weight to the legs.This is because ,when we relax and stretch the spinal cord ,a quick landing can cause an injury and for sure it reverses all the therapeutic effect of stretching.” – Gem

Good tip.

Learn how to stretch your back with the spine decompressing exercise.

Conclusion

So there you have it. This is the exact routine I follow each and every day after I get home from work (I usually follow this up with my workout).

This entire routine takes me anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes, but I think it’s completely worth it to improve the health, strength and longevity of your back.

Sitting for prolonged periods is slowly killing us. It’s destroying our posterior chain and bringing our metabolism to a halt. It’s ruining our posture and weakening the muscles required to keep us standing tall and balanced.

It’s essential that we find ways to counteract the brutal effects sitting has on our body. Try some of the back strengthening exercises and stretches I’ve listed here. Do some squats at work. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself healthy.

Your back will thank you!

And if you know of any other cool and effective back strengthening exercises or stretches, please share them in the comments below.

Jeff Blackwell - September 6, 2012

Serge:

I had a bilevel lumar surgery in December 2011. The pain I had running down my right leg for years has significantly decreased. If I had to pick a back exercise besides yours I would use a “Roman Chair”. I plan to buy one soon. I think strengthening the back is where it’s at but I don’t know as much as you. Thanks for all the great info.

    Srdjan Popovic - September 10, 2012

    Hey Jeff, was your surgery a successful one? Are you still feeling the same pain?

    I think the Roman Chair is good, but the superman exercise can be a great alternative. Also, I think strengthening the entire core is more important than strengthening the back alone.

Sri - September 6, 2012

I ve started doing body weight squats(25*2) and the basic “bend and touch your toes without bending knees” stretches 2wice during the 8 hr shift(in the restroom obviously ). I used to have a sore back after an 8 hr sleep. Its gone now after regularizing this.

Sri

    Srdjan Popovic - September 10, 2012

    That’s amazing Sri! Goes to show just how important it is to keep that posterior chain engaged and firing throughout the day. Hope you haven’t been caught yet 🙂

Fathin - September 7, 2012

An online friend suggested to walk few minutes or just stand 1-min every 30-min of sitting. I did that and found that the constant aches at my neck, back, waist and butt are getting lesser! And i think also help me to be more active and alert throughout the day.

I’m also joining pilate classes once weekly and those sessions help with my back, too, and somehow my height increased 2cm in 2 years – must be i stand more straighter!

    Srdjan Popovic - September 10, 2012

    Fathin – getting up every now and then is a great idea, but sometimes we get so bogged down in our work that we forget to get up when we need to.

    I found that using reminders on your computer work great for that. They simply alarm you when it’s time to get up and take a short break. Some free tools you can use: Workrave or Breaker are great for Windows users and Time Out is great for Mac users.

      Fathin Shaikh Naeemmuddin - September 10, 2012

      We used to have that similar tool to remind us to move away from the computer and if you snoozed several time, the computer will freeze! However, now we have upgraded to Vista, can’t find that tool anymore. What you suggested sounds great but the office computers are restricted to install anything that hasn’t been approved. So, other way is to use mobile phone, still finding mobile apps for the reminder but for now, I’m relying on myself as I’m quite fidgety, can’t stand to sit or stand at one place for long time 😀

        Srdjan Popovic - September 10, 2012

        Hmm maybe you can ask your boss to get the IT department to let you install it (there’s a good purpose for it right?!).

        And I’m sure there are some good apps that can do the same thing. I’ll take a look in the app store later and see what I can find. I can’t rely on my own memory (it’s terrible), so I definitely need something to alert me!

Austin - September 9, 2012

Most people don’t care about preventing back problems until it’s too late. I try to fit in at least 10 minutes of foam rolling a day. Those things do wonders for injury prevention.

    Srdjan Popovic - September 10, 2012

    It’s sad but true. We often wait until it’s too late (I was guilty of that too). But we live and learn right?

Casey Holliman - Sports Massage Therapist - May 14, 2013

I’ll have to try the spine decompressing exercise next time I am in the gym. I am always hunched over treating clients so regular maintenance exercises are key for my profession. The foam roller is my best friend!

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