Back Pain and Back Exercises

In the post Psychology of Back Pain, I touched on the work of Dr. Sarno that connects stress to back pain. If you haven’t read that post, go do so now. A primary strategy for addressing back pain is to give the person exercises to do. Dr. Sarno states that all forms of therapy that validate the physical pain should be avoided and that includes back exercises. By doing back exercises you are addressing the physical manifestation of pain with psychological roots.

I agree with Dr. Sarno, but I’ve expanded my thinking on back exercises. Prior to my workouts, I do a short session of what I call mobility exercises. This is not stretching. It takes me about 10 minutes and I don’t always do the same movements. Anyone watching me in the gym would see my effort as a warm-up strategy. It appears that I am preparing my body for the workout that is coming. They would be wrong.

My mobility work is about demonstrating to my mind that my body is healthy and can engage in a wide range of movements effortlessly and pain-free. Since I believe the root cause of almost all my back pain is psychological and not physical, I am showing my mind just how capable I am. Throughout the week, I may sit for hours at a desk or in a car. During this time, I am incapable of demonstrating free movement. My mobility sessions are, to me, a movement meditation. I am proudly showing my mind just how capable my movement is when I step away from the restrictions the modern world places on varied movements.

Some of the movements I perform include:

  • arm circles (both directions)
  • bodyweight squats (vary speed and depth)
  • neck mobility
  • windmill
  • leg swings (forward, side)
  • the 6 core movements outlined in 3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life

3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life: The Groundbreaking Program for Total Body Pain Prevention and Rapid Relief

3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life: The Groundbreaking Program for Total Body Pain Prevention and Rapid Relief by Joseph Weisberg

Another excellent resource is the Magnificent Mobility DVD by Eric Cressey. The video demonstrates many ideas for movements you can add to your own personal routine. Even though Dr. Weisberg and Eric Cressey are presenting their material as movements to prevent physical pain, I am using their work to demonstrate to my mind that I am capable of excellent movement.

If I do experience back pain that wasn’t directly attributable to an injury, then I don’t do these movements. Instead, I reflect on what stresses are going on in my life and work through those first. Mobility work is only done to support an already healthy body.


Add yours

  1. J. Scott Shipman

    Jun 18, 2012 — 11:17 am

    Hi Michael,

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing. I ordered a copy of the Cressey DVD—my back is feeling better, but I don’t want to go through this again.

    Thanks again!

  2. I do a quick set of similar mobility drills every morning after I shower. It takes 3 to 4 minutes and I’ve been doing them for over 6 years. Probably can count on two hands the number of mornings I’ve missed. I think when I was introduced to them all of those years ago it had something to do with Z Health. I’m too lazy to look it up right now.

    I do them to put my joints thru a full range of motion. Like you say, it’s not stretching – just a ‘hello, here is the range you may be called upon to do today’ kind on thing. Within the past couple of years I’ve added a quick leg roll with my Grid roller to top it off. Does it make me invincible? Nah, it mostly just feels good. Although, it does function as a nice diagnostic tool letting me know if I’m sore or hurt anywhere.

  3. @charles – I’ll give it a try. Not sure it this simple move will prevent a headache that would likely occur 4-5 hours later.

    @Aaron – Good point on the diagnostic check. There are times when there really is something wrong. It is much better to discover it before you get under a heavy weight.

  4. Hi MAS, quick editing check — I think you mean ‘psychological’ in a couple of places where you wrote ‘physiological’.

  5. @garymar – Oops. Making the fix now. Thanks!!!

  6. This is excellent advice!!! I too feel that back pain is psychological and it’s best to do some exercises. I have a could of exercises I do when my back pain starts and I’m usually good to go within 10 minutes.

  7. @Barbara – Just to be clear, if I feel back pain coming I don’t do the exercises. I pull myself away from the gym and use that time to reflect on what might be bothering me. If I engage in the exercises when I am experiencing pain, I am validating the physical signals.

  8. Thanks for the correction. I don’t do ‘exercises’ when I have back pain. You are right. I do some very very gentle mobility & range of motion stretches that tell my back it can move beyond the stiff chair. It comes from some motions I learned in my yoga classes a long time ago and it’s tailored to when my specific back pain arises. It’s also true that I would NEVER suggest that someone with severe back pain begin exercises or even stretches during their acute pain. My point was that I agree there can be numerous ways to aide and relieve back pains (without surgery and medications) available to people. I personally have found that I have carefully gotten to know my body and found out what kinds of things are immediately & naturally available that can relieve my back pain. Your suggestion is another great one.

  9. @Barbara – Thanks for the follow up comment. We agree!

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