Lower back strength plays a central role in sports performance, allowing us to produce and maintain an athletic posture by stabilizing the spine.
Although there is ample evidence to support this, many athletes overlook the importance of the lower back in overall core strength and as a result, it is amongst the most injured areas of the body in all of sports.
While athletes across numerous sports are certainly familiar with core training, many make the mistake of reducing core strength to the abdominals, thus neglecting the lower back in their training.
The abs are certainly an important component of the core but in reality, only makeup one part of a larger structure of muscles that works together to produce stability and rigidity in the midsection. If some of the muscles (such as those in the lower back) are underdeveloped, it can result in poor sports performance and increase the risk of injury.
So what can you do to build strength in your lower back and produce balance throughout your core? Well before we get into that, let’s talk about the core and its relationship to sports in a little more detail.
Types of Muscles in the Core
In general, when we are talking about the core, we are talking about the entire area of the body from the pelvis to the sternum. In addition to your abdomen, your sides and back also contain muscles that assist in stabilizing your torso.
The the core actually refers to a number of different muscles, tendons and bands of connective tissue (fascia) that surround the lower spine (AKA the lumbar spine).
The muscles have a number of different functions but ultimately work together to keep the torso stabilized. In general, we can break down the functions of the core muscles into three basic categories:
Flexors muscles, such as the rectus abdominis (AKA your abs), help to facilitate forward flexion of the lumbar spine.
Rotator muscles, such as the internal and external obliques, help to rotate the torso from side to side.
Extensor muscles, such as the erector spinae (a group of muscles located on the back), help to extend and the spine. They enable us to keep an upright posture and also play a critical role in our ability to lift things.
While each muscle in the core has a specific function, they must ultimately work together to enable stability and mobility throughout the body.
For instance, in order to move our right shoulder towards our left hip, both our right external oblique and left internal oblique must be engaged.
Additionally, the core muscles also work to counterbalance one another — if we contract our abdominal muscles to bend our torso forward, the erector muscles in our back are also engaged to support the spine and keep us from toppling over.
A strong core ultimately depends on balance across the multiple muscles that make up the midsection. If there are imbalances, the weaker muscles can become strained, which can reduce mobility and lead to injury.
The Role of the Core in Sports
In sports, core strength depends on the athlete’s ability to produce and maintain stiffness in the torso. Exercise scientists point out that greater torso stiffness improves sports performance in three distinct ways.
1. Efficiently Transfers Energy
Nesser et al. suggest that athletes with a strong core are better able to transfer force from one end of the body to the other, resulting in increased speed and strength in the limbs.
In essence, stability in the core is produced by the stiffening of the torso, which helps to assure that energy is not lost as it is transferred from the lower half of the body to the top or vice versa.
For example, the force behind a boxer’s punch is transferred from the ground to the lower limbs, up through the torso and only then into the arm. If (s)he is unable to maintain a rigid midsection in this process, much of the energy generated in the lower half of the body will not make it’s way to the upper extremities.
Furthermore, a 2014 study on golf swings conducted at the Titleist Performance Institute demonstrated that athletes who performed better on exercises that required high core activation were also able to drive the golf ball further on average, helping to demonstrate the role of core strength in the efficient transfer of energy.
Exercise scientists argue that weakness in the core results in inefficient transfers of energy in an athlete’s body. The researchers propose that this ultimately leads to suboptimal performance in sports and increases the risk of strain and injury to muscles in the core that have not been adequately developed.
2. Increases Stability of the Spine
Another important role of the core is to produce stability in the torso, which helps to keep the top half of the body stabilized over the bottom during athletic movements.
Stiffening the muscles in the core helps to increase the amount of weight the spinal column is able to support, allowing us to maintain stability and keep our spine from buckling during performance.
For instance, many events in the world of Strongman place an incredible amount of strain on the athlete’s core and particularly the lower back. An event such as the yoke walk often requires competitors to stabilize and carry hundreds of pounds on their shoulders. If the competitors are not able to maintain stiffness and rigidity in their torso throughout the event, they will be likely to buckle under the weight, resulting in performance issues and potential injury.
Additionally, most sports require that the athlete is able to maintain stability across all three planes of motion. Sports such as football often task the athlete with making frequent and abrupt changes in directions, which can be incredibly demanding on the core.
Take a wide receiver for instance — in order to run a specific play route, he must sprint 10 yards straight ahead and then make an abrupt cut to the right to move into open space. If he is unable to maintain core stiffness during the cut however, his movement will be restricted and inefficient. In such cases, the athlete’s spine may buckle under the force resulting in poor performance and greatly increasing the risk of injury.
3. Protects Vital Organs
The muscles in the core also play an important role in protecting your vital organs. The torso is home to a number of organs which are each essential to your body’s ability to function.
Because there are not many bones in the lower region of to torso, the task of protecting your organs falls largely on the core muscles. The stiffening of the core helps to provide a shield for your organs, helping to protect them from external forces.
Being able to maintain rigidity and stiffness in the core is therefore vital in contact sports, where an athlete’s body is frequently exposed to forces that can damage internal organs and result in serious injury.
The Importance of the Lower Back
While a strong core is indeed correlated with improved sports performance, it ultimately depends on a balance of strength and conditioning across all of the muscles that make up the core.
Underdeveloped muscles in the core will fatigue before better developed ones, reducing the amount of support provided to the spine and increasing the chances of performance breakdown and injury.
The lower back, in particular, is one of the most frequently injured areas of the body in all of sports. Lower back pain is commonly reported by athletes in sports ranging from golf to football and is often a good indicator of lower back weakness, which can drastically impact core strength and athletic performance.
While the abs get most of the attention, the lower back plays a far more central role in keeping the spine erect and stabilized, which are both essential functions in producing and maintain an athletic posture during performance.
Anatomically speaking, the muscles in the lower back are larger and denser in comparison to the muscles in the abdomen and are designed to take on more of the responsibility in terms of keeping the spine stable and upright.
If the lower back muscles are underdeveloped, however, prolonged contractions can lead to fatigue, placing extra strain on the muscles and reducing stability and stiffness in the torso.
In the long run, the stress placed on weak muscles in the lower back can lead to inflammation, pain and reduced mobility, which all negatively impact both performance and overall health.
Movements That Build the Lower Back
Core exercises are commonly featured in the training programs of many different athletic populations. Athletes and trainers alike rely on core exercises to increase endurance and strength in the torso muscles.
For athletes, the primary goal of core training is to increase stability and stiffness in the spine through the application of exercises that activate the musculature of the trunk.
While abdominal exercises should certainly have a place in your arsenal, exercises that engage the lower back are just as important if you’re looking to increase support and stiffness in the lumbar spine. Furthermore building up strength and endurance in the lower back can help to reduce back pain and increase mobility.
So what type of lower back exercises should you be doing as an athlete?
Eric Hammer is a leader in performance training at Baptist Health and is also former collegiate sports and performance coach. According to Eric, both isometric and dynamic exercises can help to improve strength and endurance in the lower back. The types of exercises you chose to incorporate into your program, however, will ultimately depend on your training goals and the particular demands of your sport.
Isometric holds can be an effective means of improving stability and stiffness in the lower back.
These type of exercises require the individual to hold their body in a specific position for a set amount of time. The back extension and plank have been proven effective in activating the muscles in the lower back while also minimizing the load placed on the spine.
Dynamic exercises, where specific movements are performed for a given number of repetitions and sets, are another tool for isolating and activating the muscles in the lower back. They are usually performed after isometric holds once the muscles have been sufficiently activated. Exercises such as the hyper extension and reverse hyper extension can help to build strength and endurance. Furthermore, the reverse hyperextension can also help to alleviate back pain.
Compound movements are another type of exercise you can include in your toolbox. Exercises such as the deadlift and Romanian deadlift (RDL) help to build overall strength as well as core strength. Compared to isolation movements, compounds movements recruit multiple muscles groups. For example, in addition to activating the muscles in your lower back, the deadlift also engages your legs, glutes and upper back.
Although compound movements such as the deadlift can be effective in building lower back strength, they can also increase the risk of injury at high intensities. Considering the demands of your particular sport will help you to determine what level of intensity you should be working at.
For instance, if you're in a sport like shot put where you are looking to build explosive power, there is no way around going heavy but consider going lighter if you are in a more endurance based sport — heavy deadlifts place large loads on the spine which can interfere with your on-field training and increase the risk of injury.
A sport like soccer, for example, requires a lot of endurance in the lower back muscles as opposed to raw strength, which means something like heavy deadlifts for lower back training may not align with the particular demands of the sport.
Instead, exercises that produce high activation in the lower back muscles but don’t overburden the spine will be better suited to reduce muscle fatigue under prolonged periods of contraction.
Strength and conditioning research has helped to illustrate that building a strong core improves performance in sport. Core strength, however, depends on a balance of strength and endurance across all of the muscles that make up to the torso — weak or underdeveloped muscles ultimately lead to breakdowns in performance and increase the risk of injury.
The lower back, in particular, is an area of the body that is underdeveloped in many athletes and as a result, is among the most injured body parts in all of sports. If you are serious about improving your core strength, make sure that you are including plenty of lower back exercises in your training program.