Healthy exercises and postures for the back, legs, arms, abdomen and neck beneficial for divers are presented. Problematic or harmful exercises are also discussed. While exercising specific body areas can be helpful, divers are advised to lead an active life to maintain total fitness.
If you’ve ever experienced back pain you know it affects your whole life. You won’t be diving or even leaving your house. The Red Cross estimates almost 90 percent of all back pain is preventable with good habits and back strengthening exercises. A few of the best exercises specifically for back muscles follow. Consult a physician before attempting them.
How exercise helps: Most back pain is muscle related. Weak muscles allow your back to slump into postures that put relentless pressure on discs, nerves and other muscles. Weak muscles can’t counter the pull of stronger opposing muscles, adding further stress. Inflexible muscles strain instead of stretch during activity. When divers add slinging tanks and gear around, up to eight out of ten become afflicted with back pain.
Back pain is sometimes, unfortunately, regarded the way a heart attack was years back – as a condition, not an injury. Both have been relegated to the “cardiac cripple” status of inactivity; don’t exercise or lift weights even in activities found in daily living. In this way a tragic cycle of disuse and declining ability is perpetuated.
Back muscles, like heart muscles, need progressive, sane exercise to strengthen until they meet the need. Increased endurance of posture muscles reduces back and knee pain. Increased strength reduces the chance of hurting your back, knees and shoulders from lifting gear.
Problematic exercises: The modern medical prescription for back pain, “Gee, you should get more exercise,” is true but vague. Several common exercises at gyms and exercise studios cause more harm than good. A few bad exercises now and again usually do little damage but, like smoking, the repeated, forced nature of the exposure can harm at a rate faster than your body can repair.
Some “tough on your back” exercises are weightlifting while leaning over from the waist, straight leg dead lifting, forced repetitive back arching like “donkey kicks” that swing the leg overhead from a hands and knees position, and forced repetitive back bending like toe touches from a standing position or swinging elbows down to opposite knees.
Healthy exercises: You can do many things in your daily routine to make your back more injury resistant.
1. Lie face down, hands at your sides but not supporting your weight. Slowly lift your upper body a few inches, an action called back extension, then back to the floor – don’t force. Start with one or two lifts and see how you feel the next day. If pain free, gradually increase to ten repetitions three times a week. To progress, add repetitions and move your arms from your sides to overhead.
2. Lie face down and rest your chin on your hands. Lift one leg off the floor, hold and lower – easy does it. Switch legs and repeat. To progress, lift both legs together. This exercise is great for your behind as well.
3. If your gym has weight machines, look for the back machine. You sit with a pad against your back and curl it backward. It should be next to the abdominal machine where you sit with a pad against your abdomen and curl it forward. If there is an ab machine but no back machine, an unauthorized alternative is to sit in the ab machine backward.
4. Good upper back machines have you stand or sit upright and pull a weight toward your chest. Bending over at the waist or hip to pull up hand weights or pulleys are “tough on your back” variations. Your back muscles and discs are not made for that strain. Instead of bending over unsupported when lifting weight, support your upper body by leaning on one arm, leaning against a support or lying face down on a bench.
Healthy posture: Posture matters. Over time, bad posture can injure your back as badly as a single accident. Often, all it takes is a small provocation, such as lifting or reaching, for your back to finally bid you hasta lumbago – and you never knew trouble was brewing.
Lift, stand and sit keeping the normal inward curve of your lower back. Try a posture test. Stand normally, facing away from a wall but not touching it. Carefully back up and contact the wall. Do your head, shoulders, back, behind, calves and heels touch at once? You have healthy posture. Does your behind touch first? You may be slouching forward. Try back exercises 1 and 2. They develop the muscles that pull you back. Did your shoulders touch first? You might slouch backward. More ab work may help align you forward. Did the middle of your upper back touch but not your shoulders? Maybe you hold your shoulders rounded. Pull them back and try exercises 1 and 4.
Healthy stretches: Inflexible back and leg muscles are common culprits in back pain. The range of motion that strains tight, low back muscles is small and accounts for some painful backs after a day of diving. Hip flexors are the muscles that bend your legs forward at the hips. Tight hip flexors, common in people who sit a lot, sometimes pull the pelvis forward. The shift in the normal tilt may add to low back pain. Hamstrings are the triple set of muscles in the back of your thighs. They work to both bend your knees and swing your legs in back of you. Tight hamstrings are thought to influence the tilt of the pelvis to the back, which may contribute to back pain.
1. Leaning over at the waist for toe touches does stretch the back and hamstrings but is not the best stretch for regular use. Although it often feels good on tight muscles, it’s tough on your back in the long run. A safer back stretch is to lie on your back and bring your bent legs to your chest one at a time. A safer hamstring stretch is to stand with one heel propped up on a chair, keeping the inward curve of your lower back and sticking your behind out a little.
2. Many exercise programs concentrate on bending forward, forward and more forward. For back health add stretches in the other direction. Stand up with your hands on your behind and lean back into an arch. Another variation is to lie face down, slowly, gently pressing up into an arch. Try these two after bicycling, gardening, cleaning floors, sitting on dive boats or any activity where you lean forward for prolonged periods.
3. Lie face down keeping one elbow bent on the floor. Press the other arm straight, twisting toward the straight arm – gently. Switch sides and repeat.
Poor neck posture often brings on pain between the shoulders, under the shoulder blades and around the neck. The most common poor neck posture is jutting your chin forward while standing and sitting. Try the posture test again. Did the rest of you touch before the back of your head? That’s a forward head. A forward head looks like E.T. sniffing a flower. Less comical is its effect of overstretching the ligament down the back of the neck, weakening the neck and putting pressure on discs. Chronically holding your neck muscles, or any muscle, in a stretched position weakens them.
Problematic neck exercises: Two classic exercises press your neck into extreme forward positions – the overhead bicycle where you churn your legs in the air with all your weight on your shoulders and neck, and the plow, in which you lie with all your weight on your shoulders and neck, adding neck pressure by aiming your legs for the floor behind your head. Neck rolls or head rolls are also tough over the long run. The vertebrae of your neck are not shaped for motion through a circular path.
Healthy neck exercises: For a healthy neck range of motion just look down, look up, look left, look right and tip each ear to each shoulder. If your habitual neck posture is forward, practice pulling your chin in and head back until your ears center over your shoulders. Try it for ten counts then hold all day. For a good starting neck exercise, do back extension exercises 1 and 2, described in the section above.
Your back was not made for lifting. Exercise your legs until they are strong enough to lift your gear instead of using your back.
1. To build strength you need real weights, not leg lifts. See part one from last month for more on leg machines.
2. In general it’s easy to exercise your legs – you can swim with fins, walk, run, ride a bike, ski, carry things, get up and walk away from the television. Just try it – it works.
3. For a fun isometric exercise, put your back against a wall, feet away from the wall and slide down until you are in a sitting position. Holding this position, time how long you can endure.
Abdominal muscles run down your front from your ribs to your pelvic bones. One of their functions is to maintain tension to keep you from arching too far backward during normal standing and sitting. Muscles running along your back work similarly to keep you from slouching forward. Weakness in back and/or ab muscles allows you to sit and stand in ways that slowly injure you without you knowing it.
1. Crunches, not situps, are the best exercise for your abs.
2. When you exercise your abs, also work your back muscles with the exercises described in the previous section. You can strengthen your abs until your weaker back muscles can’t counter the pull from the front. Abs create an important support structure for your torso but they are not the entire support.
3. Leaning from side to side while holding hand weights is not an ab exercise. It does not benefit the back and does not tone or reduce the midsection. The muscles in play here are called “hip hikers” and are used in walking to keep the swinging leg from dragging on the ground.
Strong arms look sexy and more easily carry the weight of gear with less chance of injury. The best exercises for arms use weights. Waving your arms in an aerobics class won’t do it. Your arm does not weigh enough by itself to provide the resistance for strengthening. Try the various machines or lift dumbbells, gear bags or willing buddies to exercise your biceps, triceps and shoulders. The upper back exercises described in the section on backs are also good for shoulder stabilization. Arm exercises are most effective when you actually do them.
Swimming is great for your arms in general but won’t work all your arm muscles. Swimming preferentially ignores your biceps and the muscles that turn your thumbs upward, called external rotators, while building internal rotators that rotate the thumbs downward. The weak external rotators may destabilize the shoulder, at times contributing more to swimmer’s shoulder than the repetitive action of swimming. If you turn out laps by the hundred, add external rotator exercises. Hold a small hand weight in your right hand. Lie on your left side, with the right elbow bent and the weight near your navel. Lift the weight up toward the ceiling, then lower. Switch sides after each set.
All Of You
Why not take all of you? Rather than thinking of fitness as intentional exercise at set periods for specific body parts, enjoy an active life. Get out of the gym or rec room and plant bulbs with a loved one. Carry packages, help put away groceries, help vacuum the house, wash your car by hand and have fun getting your helpers soapy. Take a walk and feed a few expired parking meters. Give piggy back rides. Hike around dive sites to better familiarize yourself with the areas. You can develop respectable fitness through lifestyle. Exercise for the sake of exercise is fine but can be overdone. More about this next month.