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The Strong Myth of the Weak Back

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 120 – February 2006

“I have been told by my osteopath that I must strengthen my back, and he referred me to you,” said the voice at the other end of the phone. I replied by saying that I was the wrong person as, in my form of treatment, I do just the opposite. Then, I spent about ten minutes explaining why I took that approach, and why strengthening aching backs was only bound to aggravate them. The voice, who listened patiently, finally booked a session so that ‘I could strengthen her back’.

This true story is more proof, if it were needed, that misconceptions and myths die hard. When well-entrenched in the deep recesses of the brain, they are almost impossible to delete. The concept of the weak back, shared by most schools of physical therapy, fitness regimes and the vast majority of people with bad backs, is such a strong myth that to explode it requires a great deal of educational work. Everybody seems to want to strengthen their backs, so much so that there is a form of physical therapy whose motto is: ‘a strong back knows no pain’.

These days, ‘tone up’ is the buzz word of the fitness community. But what is tone? In popular parlance, tone is a very vague term that is applied indiscriminately to muscle or skin. Muscular tone is a permanent and involuntary slight contractile tension present in normal resting skeletal muscles. It is also defined as the resistance offered when trying to move the muscles passively. It is under the dependence of the central and peripheral nervous system.

An excess of fat stores and/or sagging skin often makes people think that they have a lack of muscle tone. In reality, layers of fat hide the real picture, i.e. most of our skeletal muscles harbour an EXCESS of tone. Only a few, such as the abdominals and the quadriceps (front of the thighs), lack muscle tone due to excess in the others.

Misreading shape and misunderstanding body mechanics is another reason for the prevalent, but false belief that we must tone up and strengthen our muscles. The all too common slouching posture gives an illusion of general weakness as if we are unable to oppose gravity’s pull. And as the back muscles are called ‘extensors’ or ‘anti-gravity’, it logically follows that to strengthen them would straighten our stooping body. Sadly, our back muscles are not and will never be ‘extensors’ – they postero-flex, side-bend and rotate the spine but in no way can they lengthen it. Consequently, to exercise them can only aggravate our distortions and the pains which accompany them. So, every time you indulge in these atrocious exercises designed to strengthen your back muscles, such as, for example, being on your front and arching your back, you just speed up a distorting process and are working towards premature wear and tear, pain and dysfunction. Remember that a muscle with too much tone is a shortened and tight muscle which pulls unduly on its attachments, and consequently misaligns the segments of the body.

Yet another cause of the misguided desire to strengthen muscles is pain.

When, due to a bulging disk for example, your back aches, you will for sure feel weak as the pain will helpfully prevent you from engaging in even the most trivial activity. But it is not because your back muscles are weak; on the contrary, it is because they are too strong that your disk has bulged. Likewise, if you feel physically feeble, with little sporting capacity, it’s not because your back muscles are weak but because, being too short and strong they restrict and impede your movements, rather as if you were driving your car with the handbrake on.

Now, should you strengthen (tone up) the minority of muscles which truly are lacking in it? The answer is a resonant NO. Their lack of tone is a mere symptom of the excess of tone in the remaining muscles. A direct approach can only compound the problem. For example, the old trick of holding your tummy in, which has lately gained an unfounded renewed interest, is worthless at best, and makes matter worse when it results in a tense and tiring posture where normal breathing is no longer possible. Besides, it’s always the upper part of the transverse abdominis which ends up contracted – the part often too tight anyway – while the lower part is left idle.

Our misshapen bodies are the evidence of a tonic imbalance where long bundles of muscles spanning several joints end up with too much tone. Toning them down is the solution to our musculo-skeletal problems. Then, and only then, the flabby ones will see their tone increase.

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