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Back to basics

Danny O'Dell explains how to look after your back with consideration to posture and stretching exercises

As coaches, we are required to set an example for our athletes. Young athletes will copy our actions so correct demonstration of technique is essential. We will stress the correct posture when running, throwing, jumping etc but our standing or sitting posture is just as critical to the well-being of our backs.

Look at yourself in a mirror. Are your knees hyperextended? Are your shoulders rounded or your head lined up forward of your shoulders? If one or all of these conditions are present, then undue and correctable stress is being applied to your back.

Make your body stand tall by keeping the weight evenly distributed over both feet. Keep your knees from locking by keeping them in a slightly bent or 'soft' state. Maintain your shoulders up and positioned back and keep a slight arch in the low back area.

If you look at yourself standing sideways in front of a mirror, an imaginary line dropped straight down from your ears should go through the middle of the shoulders, continue to the hips and end up at the mid-portion of your feet.

Sitting down posture is similar in that your feet are flat on the floor, lumbar support is behind your lower back for support and you do not lean forward to conduct your business while sitting. The imaginary line will go straight down through the middle of the shoulder to the hip joint and directly to the floor. Refer to the chart for percentages while sitting down.

Position/Activity Disc pressure expressed as a % of body weight
Seated in a flexed position 85%

Sleeping positions

Sleeping on your stomach is not bad for you as long as you are comfortable doing it in this way. Refer to the chart for comparisons of the different positions while lying down.

Position/Activity Disc pressure expressed as a % of body weight
Supine with both knees flexed 5%
Supine lying face up 25%
Side-lying 75%

Now that you are aware of some of the stresses on your back consider the way you lift objects. Do you lift and twist or bend over and pick something up without setting your back? Proper lifting techniques are just as important in daily activities as they are in lifting heavy iron in the gym. The correct way to lift is the safest way to protect your back from a preventable injury.

Lifting technique suggestions:

  • Tighten your abdominals, brace your back, and keep your head lined up straight with your back and not flexed forward. This helps to prevent the back from bending or rounding over in the process.
  • Flex your knees and then lift with your legs and not with your back
  • Keeping your chin up while maintaining a solid and erect back will pay handsome dividends in the long run. Keep a small arch in the lower back as you lift the object.
  • Get very close to the thing you are picking up and keep your body from leaning forward as you begin the lift.
  • Now that you are in a position to lift it, keep it as close to your body i.e. your trunk, as you can.

A few extra precautions as you begin, and continue, to lift throughout your life are as follows:

  • Don't twist as you lift, instead stand up, square up your shoulders then turn your body as an entire unit beginning with the hips. The hips and shoulders should move as one complete package with no twisting of the spine from the hip to the shoulder area.
  • Once standing, take a step to turn the entire body and then put the object where you want it.
  • Keep your legs spread wide enough to give you a good base of support. This will normally be about shoulder-width apart.
  • If you are unsure of the weight as to whether or not you can lift it, get help or use a mechanical apparatus to lift it.

The warm-up

Each exercise session begins with the obligatory warm-up and ends with a cool-down period and then a stretching session. In this sequence, not warm up, stretch, and then cool down. It is a scientific fact that you will lose up to 8% of your peak strength if you static stretch before you do a power movement.

General warm-up

The general warm-up should consist of light physical activity. Both the intensity and duration of the general warm-up (or how hard and how long) should be governed by the fitness level of the participating athlete. A correct general warm-up for the average person should take about five to ten minutes and result in a light sweat. The general warm-up aims to elevate the heart and respiratory rate. This, in turn, increases the blood flow and helps with the transportation of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles. This also helps to increase the muscle temperature, allowing for a more effective sport-specific stretch. Skipping is a great way to get moving.

Sport specific warm-up

With the first part of the warm-up carried out thoroughly and correctly, it is now safe to move on to the second part of an effective warm-up. In this part, the athlete is specifically preparing the body for the demands of their particular sport. During this part of the warm-up, more vigorous activity should be employed. Activities should reflect the types of movement and action that will be required during the sporting event. The sporting activity now begins. Afterward, the stretching or flexibility takes place as the muscles, tendons and the rest of the body are in a much better position to increase the joint ranges of motion.


Gaining and maintaining your flexibility may assist in the prevention of back injuries. "Flexibility is defined as the range of motion (ROM) of a joint or a series of joints." Stated another way it is "the ability of a muscle to relax and yield to a stretch or force." More commonly, it means the ability to move freely without restriction throughout the full range of motion. Full ROM helps to eliminate uncoordinated and inefficient movements that can lead to an injury. The ultimate goal of flexibility training is to enhance strength patterns throughout the full range of motion. Limitations on the ROM depend upon several factors, some of which are not controllable by the person; age, sex, genetics, injury, or disease status. And some of these are controllable by the person such as the tolerance to exercise, the level of commitment brought to the exercise sessions, and the motivation one has to exercise and improve their health. Demonstrable changes result from a faithfully followed program, but the adaptation process takes about six weeks to occur. It is a lengthy process and there seems to be no way to hurry this adaptation phase along. Stretching the lower back begins, as do other exercise periods, with a general warm-up.


There are many different stretching protocols of various methods, but they can be placed into two categories: Active and Passive. An active stretch takes place when the person doing the stretching applies the force to engage in the stretch. Passive stretching, on the other hand, requires a partner or machine to supply the force for the stretch. Some of the various stretching methods are:

  • Static stretches place a muscle and joint beyond the active ROM to a point of mild discomfort and then hold the position for a few seconds (up to thirty) and then relax before beginning the stretch again.
  • Ballistic stretching is a rapid but controlled bouncing into the far ROM.
  • Dynamic stretching involves the flexibility required for a specific sports movement. This stretch avoids the bouncing of the ballistic stretch.
  • Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is a partner assisted stretch and is very effective when used properly.:
    • Hold-relax
    • Contract-relax
    • Hold-relax with agonist contraction

While stretching your lower back; ballistic and dynamic types of stretching are not appropriate as the speed is far too great for this area unless under controlled conditions. These conditions refer only to highly trained athletes with a superb conditioning base of physical fitness.

Static stretching offers these benefits for the back:

  • Reduction in energy required to perform the exercises
  • Relaxing movements o Less chance to exceed the limits of the tissue strength
  • Reduction in the possibility of muscle soreness after the session is completed
  • It is an easy and efficient way to stretch and can be done at home or in the office in short periods.

Static stretches are performed in the following fashion;

  • Do not bounce into any of the stretches as the myotatic stretch reflex immediately activates. Once this happens the muscle responds by shortening its length, thus stopping the stretch in its track.
  • Hold each one for ten to thirty seconds before ending the move
  • Rest for another thirty seconds before beginning again
  • Repeat five to ten times

A few of the stretches that are useful to the healthy back are the hamstring stretches, the press up, groin stretch, cat arch, the lumbo-sacral stretch, the Williams flexion series, the prayer stretch, and the piriformis stretch. All of which can be found in many good stretching books. After the initial stretching and the full ROM are both achieved, it is time to begin strength training.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • O'DELL, D. (2005) Back to basics. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 20 / March), p. 8-10

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • O'DELL, D. (2005) Back to basics [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Danny O`Dell is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning coach from the USA. He is the author of several training manuals including The Ultimate Bench Press Manual, Wilderness Basics, Strength training Secrets, Composite training, and Power up your Driving Muscles. Danny has published articles in national and international magazines describing the benefits of living a healthy fitness lifestyle.