Military Muscle: 5 drills for a stronger back

Military Muscle: 5 drills for a stronger back

A lot of folks come to me with back problems — some as young as 25 and, of course, plenty of others in their later years. To help them, I’ve had a great deal of success with the program outlined here.

In the interest of full disclosure, my go-to guy is Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He is considered one of the foremost experts in the world on back strengthening and improvement.

These exercises can be worked in both the strengthening phase as well as a treatment phase for people with back pain.

Remember: These are focused on the muscles and tendons that surround the spine.

Write to me if you have specific questions or want to go further. Bottom line: If you have back issues, always start with your doctor to find out exactly what is going on.

Curl-ups (top)

These are the alternative to crunches/situps, activating the abdominal walls without producing spine motion. As the age of my clients moves upward, I have them perform this on incline benches, etc.

Lie flat on the floor with one leg straight and one leg bent, knee flexed to 90 degrees. This helps to prevent the lumbar spine from flattening. Place your hands underneath your lower back, supporting the lumbar area. Focus on curling around the sternum area rather than the hip or navel as in normal situps.

Brace your abs; keep your head and neck rigid. Raise your elbows just off the floor, or if using an incline bench, just raise the elbows a bit — that shifts more load to the abs.

Raise your head and shoulders a short distance off the floor. Hold for a 5-count, keeping abs braced and breathing deeply. Progress to a 10-count hold.


PT365 MilMuscle Back MWM 20140714


Activating and strengthening the lat muscles, which run the length of the back, tightens the connection to the vertebrae (spine) from mid-back to lower back and keeps everything tight and solid.

I prefer the pullup position of palms facing away. If you can’t do these yet, try weight-assist machines such as Graviton or heavy rubber bands. Proper pullup technique is strict on minimal spine movement, so no kipping.


Treadmill with a backpack on

(Not shown) The pack should fit low on your back. I start with 2.5 pounds to 5 pounds of weight plates in the bottom section and never go over 10 pounds.

More senior folks should start out walking. Walk normally, swinging arms back and forth and not holding on to the safety rails. Younger clients may start at a slow jog.

The body operates in motion. Swinging your arms from the shoulder will help reduce the load on the spine.


PT365 MilMuscle Back MWM 20140714


Planks are the “old reliable” — isometric work for both the abs and back. The key is to start on the floor, with forearms parallel rather than hands together, and rise to the front plank position.

You must hit a hips-level position and hold it for the required time. Coming off the hips level negates the exercise. It’s better to do several reps of shorter time — but stricter position — than to try to hold the position for a long time but be all over the place.

PT365 MilMuscle Back MWM 20140714

For side planks, one trick is to hold your top arm behind your back, forcing your trunk to be more upright and keeping the pressure on your obliques. Always start with a short time and go from there.


PT365 MilMuscle Back MWM 20140714

Medicine ball throw & catch

I use 6- and 8-pound medicine balls. I prefer Dynamax, since the energy is absorbed when you catch it. The thrower should throw at the top of the partner’s head. Extending your arms to catch the ball above your head activates the muscles along your spine.

I progress rather quickly from doing these standing on the floor, to hard foam pads, then to less stable foam pads, then for younger clients, to wobble boards. Here you train the entire body to deal with balance issues before and after the catch and throw. The catcher must maintain spine stability throughout.


Demonstrating this workout is Army Capt. Wayne Waldon, 32. Waldon — who was injured in Iraq in 2007 — has competed in the French, New Zealand, and U.S. World Cups and was invited to try out for the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. He’s the CEO of Reveille Group, LLC.

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Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Thomas

Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Thomas has been our Military Muscle columnist since 2007. He’s the director of the Navy Wellness Center in Pensacola, Fla. He’s his base’s lead trainer, a wounded warrior program facilitator and the Navy nutrition counselor there. His special emphasis is on fitness for the military retired population.

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