Spine-Friendly Core Strength Exercises To Protect Your Back

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January is the month people flock to gyms in the hopes of fulfilling their New Year’s Resolutions to get fit, lose weight, and build muscle. In turn, February will be a great month for physical therapy clinics as some of those same people try to fix the body parts they tweaked, pulled, and twisted. Core strength is a big goal for many endurance athletes as they go into the gym, but core strength exercises can be tricky for athletes who have a history of back pain. Here are some spine-friendly core exercises that will keep your back happy.

Isometric vs. Isotonic

You can either use muscles to move things or prevent things from moving. To curl a dumbbell with your arm you perform isotonic contractions because muscles are changing in length. Isotonic contractions are defined as concentric when the muscle shortens, as with the biceps muscles when you curl the dumbbell (elbow angle gets smaller). When you lower the dumbbell (elbow angle gets larger), there is still tension on the biceps but the muscle is lengthening. This type of contraction is called an eccentric contraction. Both eccentric and concentric contractions are isotonic. When a muscle contracts with increasing tension but does not change its length, that’s an isometric contraction.

The Risk of Isotonic Core Exercises

Isotonic core strength exercises often involve flexion, extension, or torsion of the spine. You’re flexing (crunching) forward, extending backward, bending side-to-side, and twisting around. Your body is certainly designed to handle all those movements, and for some people those exercises are no problem. However, people with weak backs and/or previously injured backs may be at increased risk for incurring back pain or aggravating an old injury. The faster and more ballistic the movement, the greater the risk.

Learn to Love Isometrics

Isometric core strength exercises are well suited to endurance athletes because stabilization and power transfer are primary functions for core muscles during cycling, running, and swimming. For instance, a strong core for a cyclist resists twisting and helps support the upper body in a relatively fixed position. Isometric core exercises are great for athletes with a history of back pain because your spine stays in a neutral position, rather than flexing, extending, and twisting.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) and 2016 Western States Endurance Run Champion, Kaci Lickteig, adds that she recommends isometric core exercises like the ones below because they provide both a eccentric and concentric force on the muscles in an isometric position. In other words, during each of these exercises, muscles in your core are simultaneously resisting lengthening while others are resisting shortening.

Pallof Press and Variations

There are a number of great isometric core exercises, including the many variations of the Plank. An exercise both Kaci Lickteig and I have grown to recommend, especially for athletes with a history of back pain is called the Pallof Press. Named after its originator, physical therapist John Pallof, the original Pallof Press was designed as an anti-rotational exercise. It has since been adapted to include variations that could be described as anti-flexion, anti-extension, and others.

All Pallof Press variations can be done with resistance cords or a cable machine in the gym. Kaci stressed that it is important to start the exercise with the spine in a neutral position, and cautioned against starting out with too much resistance.

Original Pallof Press

Position a resistance band or cable apparatus at mid-chest height. Hold the handle with both hands against the center of your chest such that the band/cable is parallel to the ground and against the right side of your chest, extending past your side to the anchor or pulley. Step to your left far enough to apply tension to the resistance band or lift the weight attached to the cable. Stand with your knees slightly bent and feet shoulder width apart, then press your arms straight out in front of you. Hold this position for a count of 10. You should feel the band/cable trying to pull your hands to the right, and you will be using your core to resist the twist. Bring your hands back to the starting position to rest, and then repeat the press. Repeat the movement with your left shoulder pointed toward the anchor/pulley.

As you progress you can hold the press position longer or add more repetitions of a shorter hold. Variations of the original anti-twisting Pallof Press include: narrower stance, kneeling on both knees, and kneeling on one knee.

Overhead Pallof Press

An Overhead Pallof Press resists flexion and extension. Position a resistance band or cable at approximately the height of your hands extended over your head when you are standing. You can also do this variation from a kneeling position, which can make it easier to find a suitable anchor spot for a band. Face directly away from the anchor spot, grasping the band/cable handle with both hands in front of your head but slightly to one side to allow the cable/band to pass over a shoulder. Move forward enough to apply tension to the resistance band or lift the weight attached to the cable. Stand with your knees slightly bent and feet shoulder width apart, and then press your arms straight up over your head. Hold this position for a count of 10. You should feel the band/cable trying to pull your hands and upper body back, and you will be using your core to resist the force and keep your body straight up and down. Bring your hands back to the starting position to rest, and then repeat the press. Repeat the movement facing the anchor/pulley.

As you progress you can hold the press position longer or add more repetitions of a shorter hold. Variations of the anti-flexion/extension Pallof Press include: kneeling on both knees, kneeling on one knee, and standing on one foot.

Lateral Overhead Pallof Press

To resist lateral (side-to-side) bending of the spine, you can turn the Overhead Pallof Press above 90 degrees to the left and right. The band/cable will be anchored high up and to your side, so your body is in the same orientation as the Original Pahloff Press but the band/cable is at the overhead height. Start with the handle of the band/cable in front of your face, and press your hands straight up overhead. Hold this position for a count of 10. You should feel the band/cable trying to pull your hands and upper body to the side, and you will be using your core to resist the force and keep your body straight up and down. Bring your hands back to the starting position to rest, and then repeat the press. Repeat the movement with your opposite shoulder toward the anchor/pulley.

As you progress you can hold the press position longer or add more repetitions of a shorter hold. Variations of the anti-lateral bending Pallof Press include: kneeling on both knees, kneeling on one knee, standing with a split stance, and standing on one foot.

By using these variations of the Pallof Press you can hit your core muscles to resist rotational movement as well as movement to the front, back and side-to-side. Best of all, you can do it with one resistance band or by occupying one cable station in a very-crowded New Year’s Resolution gym environment.


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Comments 9

  1. Not very impressed I am afraid. Any exercise that requires going to a gym is a fail in my opinion unless you are a weight lifter and/or body builder.

    Much better check out the book “Core Advantage” by Tom Danielson. This contains a full repertoire of drills graded in a straight forward progression from easy to hard. Best aspect of it, every one only requires a few square feet of floor space and can be done anywhere, any time.

  2. Is there a reason to do these instead of various planking exercises? I have read that the classic plank can be hard on the lumbar spine but it is still seems to be the most recommended exercise for core strengthening.

    1. I like variation as far as angles and stress lines. You and also vary resistance with cables. Simple planks can be boring.

  3. Thanks for the article regarding the Pallof presses, especially the videos! I’ve been doing them for quite some time especially since lumbar fusion surgery last year. Your article showed me some variations I had not previously been performing. -Steve

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