Strong, Pain-Free Back: Exercises for Spine Strength & Relief

Building a Strong, Pain-Free Back

Huberman discusses the importance of building a strong, pain-free back for daily activities and overall well-being. Back pain not only impedes physical activities but also affects emotional health, making even simple tasks more distressing.

To build a strong, resilient back, Huberman emphasizes the importance of understanding basic back anatomy and physiology. The spine consists of vertebrae, discs, and the spinal cord, which transmits sensory information from the body to the brain and motor commands from the brain to the muscles.

Huberman explains that back pain often results from compression of nerve roots exiting the spine, which can be caused by herniated discs, inflammation, or other factors. Creating space for these nerve roots is crucial for relieving pain and maintaining a healthy back.

Building stability in the core, lower back, and abdominal muscles helps protect the spine and allows for pain-free movement. Huberman also stresses the importance of proper positioning and stability in the feet, toes, pelvis, and neck to support the back.

Throughout the discussion, Huberman references protocols from experts like Miller, McGill, and Starrett, which include simple movements and exercises that can help relieve back pain and build strength without the need for equipment or significant time investment.

The Anatomy and Function of the Spine

Huberman explains that the back consists of the spine, which is made up of bony segments called vertebrae and soft tissue called discs that sit between the vertebrae. The discs allow for mobility of the spine, while the vertebrae provide protection for the spinal cord, a long, snake-like piece of the nervous system that runs through the center of the vertebrae and discs.

The spinal cord is part of the central nervous system (CNS) along with the brain, and CNS tissue does not regenerate well after injury. The brain is encapsulated within the skull, with the exception of the neural retinas that line the back of the eyes.

The back has many functions, including stabilizing the body, providing stiffness for limb movement, and allowing for a wide range of motion. Understanding the anatomy and function of the back is important when considering how to strengthen it.

Assessing Your Spine Type for Optimal Strength and Pain Prevention

Huberman and McGill discuss the importance of understanding individual spine anatomy when it comes to back pain and strength. They explain that people generally have either a thicker or thinner spine, which can be determined by looking at wrist, ankle, and knee size.

Those with thicker spines can handle more vertical load but may struggle with side-to-side mobility. In contrast, those with thinner spines are more flexible but may need to build more muscle to stabilize the spine.

Huberman uses the analogy of a willow tree versus an oak tree to illustrate these differences. A willow tree is bendier but can’t sustain as much vertical pressure, while an oak tree is strong vertically but may snap if bent too far to the side.

Most people fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum and may have a combination of thick and thin musculature in different areas of the body. Understanding your individual spine anatomy can help determine which exercises and protocols to emphasize for a strong, pain-free back.

Strengthening Your Back with the Curl Up Exercise

In the “McGill Big Three” exercises for strengthening and reducing back pain, the curl-up is a replacement for the traditional sit-up. Sit-ups can worsen back pain by pushing herniated discs further out between vertebrae, impinging on nerves.

The curl-up strengthens the abdominal wall while maintaining a stable spine. Lying down with one knee bent, hands under the lower back, and tongue on the roof of the mouth, the upper chest is raised slightly while contracting the abdominals for 8-10 seconds.

Huberman recommends doing 3-5 sets, starting with 5 repetitions of 10-second contractions and decreasing repetitions each set. Variations can increase difficulty, but keeping the head neutral and breathing through the nose is important.

Even doing the curl-up once or twice a week can strengthen the back and relieve pain. As pain dissipates, building abdominal strength further protects the spine, especially for those with thinner spines requiring more muscular support.

The Side Plank: Technique and Progression for Spine Strength and Back Pain Relief

Huberman confesses that he hates doing side planks but recognizes their importance for spine health and preventing back pain. He explains how to properly perform side planks, starting with bent knees and progressing to straightening the legs and placing one foot in front of the other.

The key is to push the floor away and generate a strong, rigid plank position without letting the hips sag. McGill recommends doing three sets of three 10-second holds on each side, with the option to make it more challenging by rotating the chest toward the floor.

The most common mistake is allowing the hips to sag, which can aggravate disc bulges and nerve impingement. Huberman emphasizes the importance of envisioning the anatomical features of the back, including the spinal cord, vertebrae, discs, and nerves, while performing the exercises to strengthen both the back and understanding of neuroanatomy.

The Bird Dog: Strengthening the Spine with Stu McGill’s Third Exercise

Huberman discusses Stu McGill’s “big three” exercises for strengthening and pain-proofing the back. The third exercise, the bird dog, involves getting on all fours, extending one arm forward and the opposite leg backward, while keeping the torso parallel to the floor.

Key points include generating a strong neural contraction by making a fist with the extended hand, not raising the leg too high to avoid arching the lower back, and pushing the ground away with the planted hand and knee.

The exercise focuses on one half of the spinal musculature at a time, allowing for greater contraction intensity and mind-muscle connection. Huberman recommends performing three to five repetitions of eight to ten-second holds for multiple sets, with the greatest intensity and focus.

Common mistakes include raising the front fist or back leg too high, creating a bow shape instead of maintaining a straight line. The goal is to generate stiffness and stability in the spinal, abdominal, and upper back muscles through strong muscular contractions.

Alleviating Back Pain with Hanging and Disc Herniation Reversal

Huberman discusses two protocols for alleviating back pain caused by herniated discs impinging on nerves.

One involves hanging from a bar with toes touching the floor to create lengthening of the spine and relieve pressure on the discs. This should be done carefully for 10-30 seconds at a time.

Huberman shares his personal experience with severe back pain that was exacerbated by doing sit-ups. A physical therapist advised him to instead do “cobra push-ups” lying face down on the floor, which helped push the herniated disc material back into alignment. Within a few days, his pain was almost completely gone.

He emphasizes the importance of understanding the direction of disc herniation in order to choose appropriate exercises. Strengthening the musculature surrounding the spine can help prevent further herniations. Huberman notes that while surgery is sometimes necessary, many people find relief through targeted exercises.

Strengthening Neck Muscles for Spine Stability and Pain Relief

Huberman discusses simple protocols for strengthening and stabilizing the spine, which can help with back pain relief and overall posture. One key exercise involves strengthening the muscles in the front of the neck by putting fists underneath the jaw and pushing down against resistance for ten-second static contractions.

This exercise helps counteract the common “c-shape” posture many people develop from texting and laptop use, which can lead to pain and reduced height. Strengthening these neck muscles not only improves spinal stability but also benefits airway passage and promotes nasal breathing.

Huberman emphasizes the importance of neck strength for those with broad shoulders or who engage in heavy weightlifting, as a weak upper spine can be detrimental to safety and posture. The neck strengthening exercise is easy to perform anywhere without equipment and can be done in two to five sets of three to four repetitions.

The Surprising Benefits of Strengthening Your Feet and Toes

Huberman emphasizes the importance of foot and toe strength for overall body health, especially in alleviating back pain and promoting spine stability.

He suggests trying to spread your toes apart on both feet, which may be challenging at first but can be improved with practice or the use of toe spreaders.

Huberman also recommends exercises like lifting each toe independently while sitting barefoot, although he admits he is still working on this himself.

While it may seem surprising, he notes that there is emerging literature linking toe strengthening and spreading to benefits in neurocognitive longevity, a topic he plans to explore further in future discussions.

Strengthening Key Muscles for Stability and Injury Prevention

TLDR: Dr. Huberman discusses several key points for maintaining a strong, stable body and preventing injury. These include strengthening the neck muscles, spreading the toes for a stable base, and belly breathing at rest. He also recommends staggering one’s stance while performing certain resistance exercises, such as bicep curls or tricep extensions, to engage the abdominal and oblique muscles through anti-rotation forces. This mimics real-life movements and helps protect the spine from injury.

Relieving Lower Back Pain and Strengthening the Medial Glute

Huberman discusses a protocol to activate and strengthen the medial glute, a muscle that helps stabilize the hips during walking and running. Weakness or spasming in this area can lead to lower back pain.

The protocol involves lying on one’s side and raising the top leg with a pointed toe, touching it to the floor in front, then extending it back with the heel pointed up. After several repetitions, the leg is held in the raised position for 10-20 seconds while pressing against the activated medial glute with the thumb.

Many people find this exercise provides relief from low back pain, both during and after the exercise. It can be repeated a few times per day and incorporated into regular routines to maintain neuromuscular activation of the medial glute.

Huberman emphasizes the importance of activating the medial glutes in particular, as many people fail to do so effectively, which can impact back strength and posture. This simple, equipment-free exercise can be a useful tool for those experiencing lower back discomfort.

Stretch Your Psoas Muscle Anywhere for Relief and Better Posture

Huberman discusses a simple yet effective exercise that stretches the psoas muscle, which connects the spine to the pelvis. The psoas can become tight from sitting too much or doing heavy hip hinge work, leading to stress and tension in the midsection.

To perform the exercise, get into a lunge position with one leg forward and the other extended back. Raise the arm on the same side as the back leg toward the ceiling, turning the palm parallel to the sky and the pinky toward the head. This stretch should be felt from the wrist to the heel of the back foot.

Holding the pose for 5-10 seconds on each side can provide relief from tightness, improve posture, and create a sense of lengthening in the spine. The exercise is easy to do anywhere and is beneficial for people of all body types and flexibility levels.

Aeropress: The Perfect Cup of Coffee in Just Three Minutes

Huberman discusses his love for the Aeropress coffee maker, which he started using over ten years ago.

The Aeropress brews the perfect cup of coffee with no bitterness and excellent taste due to its short contact time between hot water and coffee grounds.

It’s small, portable, and can brew a great cup of coffee in just three minutes.

Huberman uses it in the lab, while traveling, and at home. The Aeropress is the best-reviewed coffee press in the world, with over 55,000 five-star reviews.

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