Currently viewing the tag: "strength"

When it comes to strengthening the lower back, Pilates swimming mat exercises beat straight back extensions every time.  So says a recent study out of Brazil, which looked at Pilates mat exercises to distinguish which was the best exercise to increase strength and endurance of the lumbar spine paraspinal muscles (multifidi to be exact).  We know that by strengthening the spinal stabilizers of the low back–paraspinals and abdominals (the core)–chronic low back pain can be resolved and prevented.

The study involved measuring muscle activity during three Pilates mat exercises with surface electromyography (sEMG).  The three exercises were (all done face down):

  1. swimming (great video here)–essentially a cross-crawl pattern of lifting opposite side arm and leg while extending the back, alternating sides through several repetitions
  2. single leg kick–the subject’s back arched, supporting herself with forearms on the floor, flexing one foot then the other in a repeating pattern
  3. double leg kick–the subject moving from head and shoulders down and knees bent, to her back fully arched and arms extended behind her, and then back to head down/knees bent in an alternating manner

The results showed that the greatest activity of lumbar paraspinal muscles (an indicator of more efficient strengthening and stability) occurred in the swimming or cross-crawl pattern.  This study confirms that, at least for strengthening and stabilizing the low back, a cross-crawl pattern is superior to same-sided (ipsilateral) movements, or contracting both sides together.  Why?

Cross-Crawl Pattern

It’s because the cross-crawl pattern actually simulates the way we move.  Muscles of the low back and pelvis fire in an alternating pattern, going from glut to opposite side paraspinals to same side paraspinals, in that order.  When we become lax or de-conditioned in this region–watch out!–chronic low back pain.  In fact, studies show that weak paraspinal muscles are a good indicator of future low back pain.

This study’s upside is that we have a good indication of which movements of the lumbar spine are most functional–again, the cross-crawl.  The downside is, we don’t know if Pilates mat exercises are more effective than using the Roman chair or machines.  My feeling is they are–Pilates mat exercises most closely resemble our natural movements; this leads me to believe that the exercises done in the natural lumbar range of motion will have the greatest contractile strength, and thus the greatest increase in the endurance of the muscles.  Although the Roman chair and machines undoubtedly strengthen low back muscles, the very nature of their low-functionality (we don’t really do those movements naturally) probably makes them poor endurance building exercises comparatively.


A common question patients ask me is whether stretching should be done pre- or post-workout.  My very unsatisfying answer is, “It really doesn’t matter.”  I get the gist of the question, but I think there is a misconception that stretching is a warm-up exercise.  No doubt one could stretch to warm up, but it wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice.

I usually tell my Los Angeles chiropractic clients that stretching is better suited as a lifestyle activity; consider it an exercise unto itself.  So in that regard it would be the same as lifting weights to warm up–you could certainly do it, but again, it wouldn’t be my first choice.

I think the misconception of stretching as a warm-up started several decades ago, probably well before my youth; but I certainly remember playing sports in PE class and doing forward bending stretches beforehand.  Ah yes, the bouncy toe touch…remember those?

And the best is that a study came out several years ago showing that pre-event stretching has zero benefit in preventing sports injuries.  Sigh.  Yes, tell that to the PE teachers.  For more on why stretching is a poor warm-up, please read this article.

Stretching is best when adopted as a daily routine.  Because it is an eccentric contraction, it takes strength along with flexibility to stretch, so it will require energy.  You will sweat, too–probably why some people consider it a good warm-up.  But frankly, cold stretching could actually lead to injury–something not uncommonly seen in my chiropractic office.  So I actually think stretching warrants a warm-up.  Sure, yoga classes start with some light stretching and movement to warm-up–sun-salutations and such–but understand that most classes ease you into the full-on stretches.  I’d advise you do the same.

If, however, you are looking for a quick warm-up before a sporting event, try jogging in place.  There are many variations, and I’d suggest checking out this article for a great picture showing how.  Light jogging can also be a good warm-up, but leave the sprint for the end of the warm-up.  Make sure your blood is flowing nicely before running vigorously–again, you want to decrease your injury risk.

Stretching is exercise, plain and simple.  I believe that if you would have time for only one exercise, it should be some form of stretching.  Stretching brings flexibility, strength, balance, and if done right, even cardiovascular benefits.

So, in my book, stretching is a lifestyle.  I do it every day and I recommend that for everybody.  Can you use it to warm-up?  Sure, but I’d just as soon jog in place.  And I warm-up a bit before doing any serious stretching, anyway.  It’s your call on the warm-up; but for overall health and fitness, stretching is your best bet.

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