Are Yoga, Pilates, and Fitness Machines good for my back?

Written By: Michael Lucido, PT, FAAOMPT


On a weekly basis I am asked questions from my low back pain patients/clients, Is yoga, pilates, gym equipment, and or personal trainers good for my back? I am sure you would agree this is a multi-factorial issue but due to my training with NAIOMT I am able to offer real practical advice.

Let me set up a scenario to get my point across. A 42 y/o male arrives at the gym at 5:30 a.m. ready for a great work – out. He enjoys exercise for weight control, stress relieve and an overall feeling of wellness. The local gym recently purchased new “striders” and “ellipticals” ready for use by its members. His previous routine consists of bicycling for 20 minutes then lifting weights. The new machines look like a great way to exercise for 45 minutes and burn some calories! He is feeling great for the first 20 minutes then notice his “ back tightens up” but nothing that will keep him from stopping. 

He finishes the work out does some stretches and seems to be fine. Later that day as he is sitting in a meeting he notices a sharper type of low back pain. As he walks back to his office the pain goes away and he thinks nothing of it until the next morning when he attempts to get out of bed and cannot stand up straight due to intense knife-like low His work out from the previous day left him at risk for an acute onset of low back pain.

Inductive reasoning allows us to determine while exercising in the same movement pattern for 45 minutes fatigued spinal muscles producing an abnormal shear forces that exceeded the visco-elastic mechanical properties of the spine producing a painful condition that know has an “annular tear”.

A recent published article in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies (2012) supports this reasoning. Researcher’s at the University of Colorado, Division of Bioengineering studied a condition known as repetitive lumbar injury (RLI). The study looked at a series of experimental data from in-vivo feline groups and normal humans subjected to prolonged cyclic spinal movements at low loads, high and low velocities, as well as short and long in-between rest periods, while recording spinal creep.

The conclusion was that when the stability of the spine is compromised (spinal creep) it had a detrimental effect on the spinal muscles leading to inflammation and over activity known has “spasm”. The authors stated that “fast movement, high loads, many repetitions and short rest periods, triggered the full disorder, whereas low velocities, low loads, long rest periods produced very little mechanical changes of the spine”.

These findings have clear implications to healthy individuals as well to people with chronic or acute mechanical low back pain. One should alternate machines or activities about every 20 minutes to avoid excessive “cycling loading” of the spine and avoid exercises that make your back feel tire or fatigued.

Exercises such has yoga which hold the spine at end range can also place a person at risk for an annular tear. In addition, avoid doing one exercise for a prolonged period of time > 20 minutes and cross train muscles including spinal muscles. Spasm of spinal muscle is usually related to a compromise of spinal stability and should be considered a “warning sign” and addressed with a remedial exercise program.

Advice like this is best given by a professional who understands human movement, anatomy, spinal mechanics and spinal pathology that we address in our Level II 611 courses. Hopefully see you there.

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