Wayne L. Westcott: Workouts ease lower back pain, studies indicate

Wayne L. Westcott

Statistics indicate that 80 percent of adults have suffered from at least one episode of lower back pain. But lower back pain is not inevitable, even in a sedentary society in which people are spending more time sitting at desks or slouched over computer keyboards.

Based on research from the University of Florida and our own study with General Motors, most lower back problems seem to be muscular in nature, and more lower back muscle strength is associated with less lower back discomfort. In other words, people who spend a little time performing back-strengthening exercises may be less likely to encounter lower back pain.

The University of Florida research conducted by Dr. Michael Fulton and Dr. Michael Pollock involved several years of study with several thousand lower back pain patients. Their strategy was for each patient to perform one set of resistance exercise for the lower back muscles, two or three nonconsecutive days a week. The exercise set was performed on a standard low back weightstack machine with a resistance that permitted 8 to 12 controlled repetitions (about 6 seconds each). When the patient could complete 12 repetitions, the exercise resistance was increased by 5 percent.

On average, more than 2 of 3 lower back patients were either pain free or had their pain significantly reduced after 10 weeks of strength training. Even for a clinical setting, this was a remarkably high success rate.

Our study with employees at the world’s largest automotive power-train assembly plant revealed a similar relationship between lower back strength and lower back health. Unlike the University of Florida test subjects, the lower back pain sufferers in our research project performed 40 hours a week of physical labor throughout the study. Following 10 weeks of regular strength training for the lower back and midsection muscles, about 1 of 3 program participants eliminated or significantly reduced their lower back pain. Considering the physical demands on our study participants, this was a positive and reinforcing result.

Our study participants performed one exercise set each for the lower back muscles, the abdominal muscles and the oblique muscles. We felt that overall midsection strength development (back, front and sides) would be beneficial, and our results confirmed this assumption.

We have designed a summer research study to examine the effects of muscle strengthening alone and muscle strengthening plus electrical stimulation on lower back strength, fatigue and function. Half of our study participants will do strength exercises for the lower back, midsection and other major muscle groups. The other half will do the same exercises with supplementary electrical stimulation for the lower back muscles.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., teaches exercise science at Massachusetts' Quincy College and consults with the South Shore YMCA. He has written 24 books on physical fitness.