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Many people labour under the misapprehension that they must strengthen their backs in order to get better. The strong myth of the weak back is so pervasive that there is even one form of physical therapy whose motto is: “a strong back knows no pain”. But back muscles are never weak, consequently they never need strengthening. Evolutionary speaking, they are the oldest and the toughest muscles we possess. To ‘strengthen’ them is adding insult to injury. A back knows pain because its muscles are too strong for their own good – squashing and pulling the vertebrae out of alignment.
How did such a myth come about? An excess of fat, as well as sagging skin, can make people think that they lack muscle tone. The skin may well lack “tone” and there is often too much fat underneath it, giving a soft appearance and a lack of definition, but this lack of “tone” is only skin (and fat) deep. Make no mistake, muscle deep, you will find that, in even the most ardent couch potato, there is an excess of tone in all muscles save a few, such as the abdominals and the thigh muscles (the quadriceps).
This myth is also perpetuated by people misreading body shape and misunderstanding body mechanics. The almost universal slouching posture that we adopt these days is easily but incorrectly attributed to a general weakness in the back. Anatomists have named our back muscles ‘extensors’ or ‘anti-gravity’ muscles thereby suggesting that they act to lengthen our spine. Unfortunately, our back muscles are not and will never be ‘extensors’. They bend the spine backwards, they side bend and rotate it but they never lengthen it. As a result, toning up our back muscles only acts to aggravate the distortions and the pain which accompanies them. So, every time you indulge in an exercise designed to strengthen your back (for example, lying on your front and arching your back), remember that your hard work is only acting to exacerbate your problems rather than to ameliorate them! A muscle with too much tone is a short, tight one; and short, tight muscles pull unduly on their attachments thereby misaligning our bodies.
Another baseless argument for strengthening back muscles is that a muscular armour will hold your spine in place thereby preventing you from putting your back out. The jargon used to describe damaged backs unfortunately helps to perpetuate this particular myth. People talk of ‘slipped discs’ as if an intervertebral disc (ID) was a bar of soap. Due to their anatomical structure, IDs can neither slip out nor can they slip back in. In truth, it would be more accurate to speak of a split disc rather than of a slipped disc. When this type of injury occurs, what has happened is that the tough peripheral part of the ID, called the annular ligament, cracks or tears. A torn ligament is a sprain; therefore, a so-called slipped disc is in fact a sprained disc.
Clearly, a tough tissue like the annular ligament does not tear spontaneously. Apart from relatively rare cases of severe trauma, the main cause of a ‘sprained disc’ is, yes you guessed it, an excess of tone in the back muscles. This tone causes the muscles to become shortened and chronically contracted, which, in turn, squeezes the poor discs in a tight and fatal embrace. The ‘stronger’ your back muscles, the higher is your risk of suffering a sprained disc. The same argument applies to vertebrae.
They do often become misaligned but, yet again, it is due to tight muscles not slack ones. Moreover, a vertebra does not pop out like a jack-in-the-box. Correspondingly, it cannot be put back in place by being pushed and shoved. Re-aligning a spine distorted by a tight muscular corset requires loosening the stays rather than tightening them further still.