Lumbar and Cervical Stabilization Exercises

Stabilize Your Core for Better Back Health

Lumbar and cervical stabilization exercises are all the rage these days.  In this article, you'll find out why - and learn what to do to get started with your program.

Core Strength for Back and Neck Rehab

Senior woman dressed in pink does a shoulder and upper back exercise using a theraband.
Turning exercise into exercise therapy can be an enjoyable experience.. Tetra Images/Tetra Images/Getty Images

Many rehab clinics and physical therapy offices now routinely give back and neck patients "core strengthening programs."

These programs, which focus on the muscles of the abdomen back, hips and shoulders, may improve postural alignment which in turn may help reduce pain. 

Core strength also contributes to the kind of body mechanics necessary for avoiding the back strain that may occur while engaging in daily chores, sports or dance.

Benefits of core strength translate into pain relief, says Susan Eaton, yoga teacher and head of outpatient services at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. "Good posture habits encourage a healthy alignment of the bones and curves of the spine, and allow muscles to maintain their normal length."

What is "The Core"?

Diagram of a skeleton with the transverse abdominal muscle.
Diagram of a skeleton with the transverse abdominal muscle.. MedicalRF.com / MedicalRF.com / Getty Images

Dr. Andre Panagos, sports medicine and spine specialist at New York Presbyterian Hospital, describes the body's core as a pressurized cavity capable of supporting huge amounts of exertion - much more than the back muscles.

Panagos points out that if everything but the bones of the spine were removed, and just 20 pounds were placed on top, the vertebral column would buckle and collapse. Muscles around this pressurized cavity provide more support for physical work than does the spinal column, he says.  

The abdominals are key core muscles, but those in the pelvis and back play important roles as well.

Types of Core Strengthening Programs

Muscular structure superimposed on body of woman doing stretching exercise on exercise mat
Abdominal and core muscle exercise. Angela Coppola / Getty Images

Core strengthening gives you strong, flexible trunk muscles that support well-aligned bones. Exercise programs for the core target the muscles located very close to the spine itself, as well as those in the pelvis.

These days core strengthening programs can be found in many forms and may be called by a variety of names including: Pilates, lumbar stabilization, cervical stabilization, core support and trunk exercises. Types of programs range from doctor-prescribed (stabilization programs) to personal training sessions and gym workouts (Pilates, yoga and abdominal routines) and more.

Learn how to progress your ab routines from easy to challenging: Progress Your Ab Exercises

Classes and Workouts for Core Strengthening

Core stabilization exercise.
Core stabilization exercise.. Betsie Van der Meer/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Outside the back clinic, a core strengthening program might take a general approach to abdominal development, or it may use highly refined mind-body techniques that employ breathing, body awareness, and ideal alignment along with the abdominal work.

Finding a program and a teacher appropriate to your level of ability and for your injury or condition is imperative. Here are some tips:

  1. Interview the instructor regarding certification, experience and expertise working with back and neck pain, and communication skills (including good listening skills).
  2. To avoid worsening an injury or condition, try to find a teacher who can recognize when it is appropriate for you to see a doctor or therapist, and is willing to refer you out.

Before You Begin a Core Strengthening Program

Lungs are the organ of breathing
Lungs are the organ of breathing. Alexmit

There are many core strengthening programs from which to choose, but performed correctly, each type should aim to create and develop reliable body posture.

To work core muscles, you first have to reach them, and that usually comes in the form of an introduction and/or preparation. A good instructor or therapist will provide this to beginners (along with reminders, as you progress).

Instruction and preparation work may include breathing techniques and information on where to place body parts such as your feet, pelvis and shoulders - all geared to help you locate and activate your deep abdominal muscles, and to work in good alignment. You should not have to work through pain to get good results with core strengthening programs.

Related: Breathing and Exercise - How they Work Together

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Beware of Crunches

Woman performing side crunch exercise, hands held to sides of her head, shoulder blades lifted off the floor, left knee bent at right angle and other leg rested across it
Woman performing side crunch exercise, hands held to sides of her head, shoulder blades lifted off the floor, left knee bent at right angle and other leg rested across it. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Panagos warns about doing ab crunches: "When you do crunches you are only working only in one plane. But the spine and its muscles are are three dimensional –-- they go all the way around. That is where core strengthening, which are not ab crunches, can really help."

Core Strengthening Exercise - The First Series

Bridge Exercise
Bridge Exercise. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Once you have an awareness on how to activate your deep abs, try a few simple exercises that work all the posture muscles. These exercises begin the process of developing trunk stability. Examples include the pelvic tilt, and a few easy yoga-like poses such as supported bridge and a spinal twist, if appropriate for your condition.

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Core Strengthening Exercise - Stabilization and Dynamic Stabilization

A woman with a curved trunk sits on an exercise ball.
This exercising woman demonstrates the spinal curve movement.. Wavebreak Media

As you advance, your skilled therapist or instructor will give you arm and/or leg movements that challenge the trunk to move. It will be your job to keep your trunk still, while performing them. This is is what trains the ab, back and other postural muscles to stabilize the spine.

After you have mastered the skill of a still torso, you can challenge yourself even further by performing the exercises lying on rounded pieces of equipment such as fit balls or foam rollers. This type of exercise is known as dynamic stabilization.

Through stabilization and dynamic stabilization exercises, you will likely not only find yourself with a stronger core, but improved balance and coordination, as well.

The Ideal Core Strengthening Program for You

Therapists helps a man challenge his hamstring muscles using theraband
Work with a therapist to tailor your hip and core workout to your particular back problem.. Henglein and Steets/Cultura/Getty Images

The ideal core strengthening program is one that is individualized to fit into your lifestyle and works well with your personality. Rather than trying to knock out 10 or more ab-killers once or twice in hopes of getting a strong core, it is better to work with your doctor, therapist, trainer or teacher to create a program you can and will do daily.

According to Eaton, creating a core strengthening program isn't as simple as following a few exercises from a book or website. "Not every exercise is right for every person," she says. "People with back or neck problems who have never exercised will need a very different program from athletes with an injury looking to get back in the game."

Related: Transform Exercise into Back Therapy with These Workout Routine Hacks.

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