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Why Walking is so good for Core Stability to alleviate Lower Back Pain

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 07 May 2020
Hits: 5847

Walking is one of the most under-rated forms of exercise and is something we regularly take for granted. Our body learns from a very early age how to become efficient and stable with this movement so we can move around in daily life. This is where it can be a very useful tool to restore function to joints of the body that are dysfunctional or in pain. With multiple joints and muscles all required to move perfectly within a split second to provide stability of the body, this movement pattern relies heavily on the strength, timing, and coordination of the core. For this reason walking can be a great tool in helping people to reset the core where poor stability has been shown to cause back pain and even hip pain. In this article I explain exactly why fast walking works to reduce spinal load and compression and the key technique instructions you need to be aware of when using this for back pain. This is a must read for anyone suffering with back pain right now.

During my 15 years as trainer specialising in working with people trying to recover from injury, I have made many mistakes and learned many valuable lessons. In the early days I was constantly looking for the next new thing to help people and spent considerable time reading books and completing various training courses. While some of this was great and expanded my knowledge across many topics, I discovered that the best solutions were often found with the simplest exercises and activities. And this is where I came to realise that walking can be a very effective tool to use as a corrective exercise.

I remember a few years ago reading a book called the "Gift of Injury" written by Brian Carroll and Dr Stuart McGill. This is a book written like a case study that talks about Brian Carroll who was an elite power-lifter who suffered a severe back injury that almost crippled him. It explains how he rebuilt his body through corrective exercise with the help and guidance of world renowned back pain researcher and scientist Dr Stuart McGill. 

There is a part in the book where he refers to the use of an interval walking program during his early stages of rehab that made a big difference to his treatment. Dr McGill prescribed him to walk 15 minutes at a brisk pace with swinging arms 3 times per day. Here is Dr McGill's reasoning for this.

"Walking is the best tool we have in the essential early training of the muscles in the frontal plane. This simple movement engages and exercises the core muscles required to counterbalance a recovering back, and takes some of the load off the rear muscles. Pained individuals tend to carry an unnatural tension in their shoulders. Laxity is required in the shoulders to reduce spine load while walking which is why we encourage a jaunty arm swing to loosen those shoulder muscles as you stride." - Dr Stuart McGill

Brian Carroll also explains in the book himself how this strategy along with several basic exercises were pivotal to his recovery in the stage where his pain was at its worst. This really struck a cord with me at the time, and it was something I put in my memory bank as I was constantly working with people suffering similar symptoms and could see this being a valuable tool to use.

I had to be careful not to apply this to everyone and treat each case on its own merit as some people may actually have a problem with walking. In some cases the way the person walks may even be the catalyst for their back pain in the first place. For the sake of the sake of this article not going too long I do not want to cover the things to consider for walking difficulty as I want to relate this to back pain.

If you do have some problems being able to walk right now you will find the articles listed below will help you. These articles provide many great exercises and explanations of how assess and treat people with walking problems.

Okay, let's explain how walking helps to alleviate back pain.

Walking Helps to Strengthen the Muscles that Support your Spine

We all know that the muscles around our trunk, core, and lumbar area (lower back) play a vital role in maintaining the stability and movement of the lower back. These muscles can become weak from sitting too much and an overall sedentary lifestyle, causing muscle imbalance and eventually poor spinal alignment and pain.

You only have to look at the picture below to see just how much pressure is placed on the discs from sitting (185kg) and sitting poorly places 275kg of pressure.

To create the leg movements to walk, there must be some degree of core stability or otherwise you would be unable to move. In this case, your hip and leg muscles would move your pelvis instead of your legs, and eventually bend your spine causing you to collapse in a big heap. To overcome this is problem the body has a series of slings that connect the opposite sides of the body together to create fluid motion and stability during the gait cycle. The timing is the critical part to making these slings work efficiently, with faster walking speeds engaging the elastic tissue in the back to unload the spine. Your torso is like a big energy producing machine which utilises multiple aspects of walking to unload and reduce stress on the spine.

See Core strength and the myofascial slings for more detail on how this works. Below is a great free report you can download that will provide many of the key exercises for developing your core.

From a fundamental stand point walking is the most basic of adult daily movements and is something we really don’t think about, simply because we are usually so efficient at using it. It is a software program we are born with and develops the minute we begin crawling as an infant. With every step you take, your arms, hips, and surrounding muscles activate in perfect harmony to complete their role in the movement.

"Each step is a series of small muscle contractions that work to keep the pelvis from sinking down on one side and bending the spine". - Dr Stuart McGill

When you walk, the health of your back muscles is improved in the following ways.

  • Increases blood flow. Decreased physical activity can cause the small blood vessels of your spine to become constricted, reducing blood flow to the spinal muscles. Walking helps open up the blood vessels, increasing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to these muscles.
  • Flushes out toxins. Muscles produce physiologic toxins when they contract and expand. Over time, these toxins can accumulate within the lower back muscle tissues and cause stiffness. Walking helps flush out these toxins and improve flexibility.

These two factors can assist you in building strength in the muscles of your lower back and reduce the chance of pain. They will not be enough to strengthen your body on their own, as you still need to develop sound movement skills (bending in particular) and have many exercises to strengthen the muscles supporting the pelvis. But this is a great start and a simple way to preserve some basic stability and strength.

Also do not forget walking provides other health benefits such as:

  • Reduces and/or maintains an optimal weight
  • Keeps blood pressure under control
  • Improves the levels of total cholesterol
  • Decreases anxiety and depression
  • Reduces the risk of heart disease and dementia

Walking also helps increase the production of endorphins (natural pain-inhibiting hormone), decreasing the overall perception of pain.

Walking increases flexibility in your hips and lower back

It's funny how walking can actually improve your flexibility when you do not spend any time stretching. Walking increases your flexibility by stretching specific muscles, such as your hamstrings, erector muscles of the spine, and even the hip flexors. The flexibility of your spinal ligaments and tendons is also increased helping to improve the function of the hip and overall range of motion in your lower back.

Lack of physical activity can cause the muscles and joints in your hips to become stiff. This stiffness becomes a huge problem to your lower back as the hips are mainly responsible for providing mobility with movements like bending, which is often the pain trigger for most cases of back pain. When the hips become too stiff it forces the lumbar spine to sacrifice its stability to find the extra movement, and this is the beginning of the bulging disc . Hip stiffness also inhibits the glutes from performing their role correctly leading to significant weakness that will become a huge problem to other joints. This is the exact problem those suffering with piriformis syndrome face with trying to correct their hip dysfunction.

There is a ton of information we could share with you relating to the hips and if you feel trouble in this area you can read more about this in the specific articles below.

How You Walk Is Very Important

Whenever I am in doubt with helping a person with back pain, I refer to the books and research by Dr. Stuart McGill. I have closely followed McGill's work for over 12 years now and have read all his books, and even completed training courses with him. I am always amazed at how simple he likes to keep things enabling you to focus on what is most important, which is often finding the pain trigger. Two years ago I did a training course with him and I documented the lessons I took from this course. See the article - Big lessons I learned from Dr Stuart McGill

In his latest book the "Back Mechanic" he compares the American way of walking vs. the way the Russians walk. There was two main differences he noted.

Firstly, he notes that Americans tend to have a poor postural head down approach to walking, as opposed to the Russians who had a chest out and stand tall approach. The Americans tend to lead with their head placing them in a constant falling forward position that has potential to place significant load on the lower back. Over time, a bad habit of this poor “spinal stacking” can lead to serious issues. The Russians on the other hand tend to have a taller more stacked approach to their gait cycle. This helps with proper “spinal stacking” and enable them to use the core more effectively stabilize the pelvis and spine.

The second thing to look at is walking speed.

Slow walking puts more of a static load on the spine when compared to brisk walking.

"Walking too slowly actually statically loads the spine. The muscles add crushing forces to the spine. Add on top of that walking slowly with poor posture while walking will only worsen the pain." - (McGill, Back Mechanic page 114).

Another huge factor I have found to be a consistent problem over the years with people suffering with back pain or hip pain is a lack of the arm swing during walking. The arm swing is very important to hip function and you can see a good explanation of this in the video below.

In Dr McGill’s book he provides 5 ways to build a pain free walking posture. These are listed below for you to follow.

  1. Maintain an upright posture which embraces a pain free stance. This can be achieved by proper “stacking” of your spine over your hips. Adjusting the tilt of your hips either forward or back should give you a sweet spot you can resort back to if you feel you posture gets out of line. Your chest should be high and your head and neck should be straight over your shoulders and not leaning forward.
  2. Gently engage your abdominals without gripping excessively. DO NOT hold your abdominal muscles stiff like you would with a plank or you will risk ruining the movement. See the article on gripping for detail on this.
  3. Start in one spot doing “marching steps”. With this you’re establishing a strong walking movement with your knees coming up slightly higher than they would if you were walking normal.
  4. Start walking with your arms swinging at the shoulders not just the elbows.
  5. Progress with larger and faster steps until you can maintain a pace that looks like you are trying to get somewhere in a hurry. You still want to maintain good posture and control. Controlled yet aggressive.
  6. Walking On Its Own Is Not Enough To Treat Low Back Pain

    While walking is undoubtedly very useful, it WILL NOT be enough to treat back pain if that is all you do. The effectiveness of this all depends on the person and how it is used in combination with other treatments and exercises.

    We must consider is how you walk and what type of back pain you have. In some cases it may be walking itself that is causing your lower back pain, as the pain triggers for those with a bulging disc and stenosis back pain are very different. You cannot have a one size fits all approach.

    For example, a person with bulging disc might experience back pain after sitting in front of a computer for a short period of time, and find that a 30-minute walk provides instant relief. With the stenosis or arthritic pain however, it is often the opposite. Sitting for half an hour may provide relief, while walking for 15 minutes exacerbates their pain. 

    Most of the people I see fall into the BULGING DISC category so walking is often beneficial to them. However, I am always careful to evaluate and assess them carefully before prescribing this activity as a part of their corrective program.

    Online Program You Can Instantly Download

    Before jumping straight into a corrective program make sure you have seen a qualified Health professional for an accurate diagnosis and assessment of your condition. I cannot stress this enough as self diagnosing can potentially lead to more problems. We often refer out to Doctors, Chiropractors, and Physiotherapists before implementing our program to know exactly what we are dealing with. Being certain on where to start is crucial to the success of the program.

    If you have seen a health professional and are now looking at implementing a series of exercises and stretches this article will provide you with many great ideas on how to do this. As many people struggle to implement this into a gradual progression I created a detailed step by step program called Back Pain Secrets that includes a 85 page Ebook and 90 minute video with exercises, stretches, mobilizations and in an easy to follow format. This can be done at home or in the gym and we cover everything about your condition in great detail from eliminating the cause to best strength exercises, even nutrition to speed up the healing process! For more information you can watch a quick trailer video of what is included. Click here or on the image below to get a copy.

    We also have a FREE cheat sheet titled '7 Simple Steps To Overcome Debilitating Back Pain that gives you the following steps outlined for you.

    Summary

    This article shows you there is so much more to walking than you realise. This should also provide you with a lot of confidence to implement walking into your daily routine as often as you can if you currently suffer with back pain. Make sure you adopt good posture, swing your arms, and walk fast. I myself like to go for three short walks each day to keep my body in good health and prevent any stiffness creeping into my hips and lower back. The walks do not have to be long, but they do need to be fast.

    For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 200 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

    If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

    About The Author

    Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

    References:

    • Movement - By Gray Cook
    • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
    • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
    • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
    • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
    • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
    • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
    • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
    • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
    • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
    • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
    • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
    • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
    • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
    • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
    • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist