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The following is a continuation of a subseries of Functionally Fit exercises aiming to boost lower back strength and also assist those with lower back problems. This week, Brian Schiff analyzes four different back extension exercises, including the Superman, and he offers two key points when working with clients having major back problems.

See 'Related Resources' below for past Functionally Fits and other exercises and training tips.

Exercise Options

Swimmer: Lying face down, lift the right arm and left leg. Hold for one to two seconds at the top, then slowly lower down to the start position. Repeat with the left arm and right leg. Continue in alternating fashion. Perform one to three sets of 10-20 repetitions.

Prone back extension: Lying face down with the hands on the small of the back, lift the upper torso off the ground through the full available range of motion. Hold one to two seconds at the top, then slowly lower down to the start position.

Superman: Lying face down, lift both arms and legs up together holding for one to two seconds at the top, then slowly lower down to the start position. Perform one to three sets of 10-20 repetitions.

Stability Ball Extensions: Begin in a flexed position on the stability ball. With the arms extended in front, lift upward until the spine reaches a neutral position. Hold one to two seconds, then slowly lower down to the start position. Perform one to three sets of 10-20 repetitions.

Application
The ordering of exercises listed above is from easiest to most difficult. Choose the one that best fits your client and his/her abilities. A recent research article I read in The Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy looked at surface EMG readings of certain back muscles with different exercises. These exercise included extensions, side bending, bridging, lifting the opposite arms and legs in the air and many others.

The key points I want to share with you are:

  • Exercises where the trunk was maximally extended to end range against gravity (picture a 45-degree back extension machine at the gym) with resistance produced the greatest muscle contraction.
  • The ideal prescription for muscle development was 15-18 reps with a five-second isometric hold at the end of each contraction.

Additional Notes
Some may argue it is safe to go beyond neutral spine extension, and research indicates there may be validation for additional strengthening. However, exercise caution and sound judgment, especially when training clientele with a history of stress fractures, spinal stenosis, spondylosis, spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis.

Brian Schiff, PT, CSCS (www.brianschiff.com) is a licensed physical therapist, respected author and fitness professional. He became a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) in 1998. In 2000, he opened his own personal training and sport-specific conditioning facility, Fitness Edge, in Dublin, Ohio. Brian has presented at several professional conferences and seminars on injury prevention and sport-specific training.

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