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middle school science
poor posture
back muscles
abdominal muscles
core strength
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Opposites Relax
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Opposites Relax

Back School 101

We have all heard it in pop music, on talk shows, and from middle school science class…“opposites attract”. When talking about people, we mean opposite personalities attract. In science, we mean opposite charges: positive and negative.

Well, in matters of muscle, opposites relax. This simple concept is a key to healing your back, as well as multiple other muscular injuries.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means if a muscle in your back is strained, the most direct way to relax it is by contracting the muscles that lie opposite to them. For a low back muscle strain, contract your abdominal muscles (ie: your “abs”) to stimulate a relaxation response in those sore, injured, back muscles opposite your abs.

To prove this idea to yourself, try contracting your biceps. You can do this by sitting in front of a desk and pretend to lift the desk from underneath with your elbows bent, and then feel the back of your arm (triceps) and you will notice this muscle has gone soft and relaxed.

Or, try the opposite by sitting in front of the desk and pushing against the desk (like a one armed push-up), and you will notice the front arm muscle (bicep) has suddenly gone soft and relaxed. This is an example of “opposites relax”.

Now back to your sore back (this is a poor pun, not to mention a redundant use of the word back), but that is how backs become sore. 90% of back injuries are listed with the diagnosis of “mechanical back injury”. This diagnosis tells very little, until you add the fact that 90% of these are further diagnosed as muscle strains.

Muscle strains in the back can usually be filed under the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” analogy.

Simply stated, the vast majority of people who injure their back, do so as a result of repeated poor lifting technique, repeated poor posture, and repeated poor core strength. Over time, all those repetitions eventually result in a tear of the back muscle tendon with what just appears to be from a one-time lift (or pull, twist, etc…). This tear, in turns, results in inflammation combined with muscle tightness, that - once prolonged - becomes a painful spasm. You end up with a tight, torn, muscle that refuses to relax for fear it will be re-injured in a worse way than it already is.

Standard home cures include ice, alternated with heat, massage (human or machine), anti-inflammatories (ie: ibuprofen), rest, and above all NO RE-INJURY.

What is least understood, and usually least practiced, is learning to contract the abdominals to “force relaxation” on the opposing low back muscles. The easiest way to do this is to squeeze your belly button as if you are trying to tape it to the back of your spine. A more advanced move is to lie on your back and lift your legs into a 90 degree angle, and as the abdominals contract, the low back muscles will have nothing to do and will start to relax.

Remember, opposites relax, so the more you contract the abdominals with moves like these, the more the low back muscle strain is required to relax.

So, to review… tighten your belly to get your back to relax. This is the most powerful and most neglected approach to relieving your back pain. Don’t forget all the other ways to treat your back pain, just add this one… opposites relax.

Please note: this approach does not apply to disc injuries. Feel free to reference my additional article that addresses strain/counterstrain, which is another way to relax the low back, and this method requires NO exercise.

As always do not attempt any exercise without the consent of your physician or physical therapist, and especially yourself: if it hurts DON’T DO IT. Thanks for reading, and as always, live and love life.


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