Like many of us, I had issues with occasional lower back pain while in the military. Eventually, suffering a major injury that required surgery, that was in no way related to the normal workout routine that the Army conducts with soldiers doing PT.

However, it wasn’t until many years later, I was doing some physical therapy for knee woes (arthritis, torn meniscus, cartilage wear) when I met a fantastic physical therapist who was far better at his job than anyone I’ve ever met before…and I have seen quite a few.

We spoke at length about the daily fitness routine and he was asking questions about how the Army worked out and how Special Forces did physical training and fitness during my time. Of course much has changed since then but his answers to me were pretty telling when it came to why there were so many soldiers with back issues, especially lower back pain.

He said that the way the military was working out was the main reason that there were so many troops with back issues or leg pain in the military. He added that the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) was the main culprit. It was essentially working the sit-ups alone for the lower body or fo core exercises. And in speaking with him, he said the core muscles get overall weak and out of whack …(his term was imbalanced) because of how and what muscles were being trained.

With the Army focusing on soldiers passing the APFT, the two main muscles involved in this exercise, rectus abdominis and hip flexors are the only ones being worked. But the more important core muscles that help keep the spine aligned during movement, the transversus abdominis were left untrained which creates a big imbalance.

This puts a ton of stress on soldiers lower back and discs which create all kinds problems down the road, which we’ve all heard about and seen first-hand. This can lead to a bulging but not fat abdomen and excessive pelvic tilt.

Exercises to Build the Entire Core:

Some of the best exercises to work the entire core include but are not limited to, Squats, Deadlifts, Reverse Crunches, RKC Planks, Leg Crossings, Woodchopper Squats with a Dumbbell and Standing Cable Pull-throughs.

According to my notes, deadlifts should be done without the tendency to over-extending their pelvic tilt or over-arching their back which is dangerous as well. The key to these as well as squats and compound presses to what is called, “spread the floor” and “drive-thru the heels” while building up the core muscles. Viewed from the side, the candidate’s bar should be traveling in a vertical line over the middle of the foot. Then the spine should be in proper alignment.

The head and neck should be in a neutral position and not looking at the sky as what used to be taught. The candidate should also squeeze his glutes during the exercise.

Reverse crunches are done by rounding your lower back as you bring your knees towards your chin, while your head stays on the floor. Keep your ankles crossed to make the legs less unwieldy and keep your knees wide so your hips don’t pinch. Fifteen repetitions per set is a good place to start with 3-4 sets. .

Legs Crossings works the lower abdominals as well as the transversus abdominis. You begin this exercise on your back with knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Raise your right knee to your chest, bringing it as close to the right armpit as possible. Then while this leg is returning towards the floor, you lift your left leg, so the legs literally pass or cross in mid-air.

Do not straighten either leg, as in the bicycling action, as this is a huge strain on the lower back. Rather, keep the legs fully bent at all times. Always start off by pulling your tummy in hard to lift the leg and don’t ever let the lower back lift away from the floor. On your way down, each foot should just brush the floor, touching with the heel rather than the big toe, before the return journey. As with the ‘reverse crunches, 15 reps for each leg with 3-4 sets is a good place to start.

The RKC Plank is an exercise that is better than the traditional plank although it looks very similar. But it does a better job of activating the deep core muscles over an extended period.

Your hands are together with your fingers interlocked and joined as opposed to arms straight out in parallel with the shoulders, creating more tension through the upper extremities into your shoulders.  Your forearms are also positioned at a 45-degree angle to put your more force onto your shoulders.

By working your entire core muscles, you are not just working the front of your midsection, (the abs), but the backside as well. A good core workout will also include the erector spinae, which are the muscles that are along your back and spine, and also your glutes.

Having a strong, and most importantly, a balanced core muscle group, it will better support your spine, and improve everything about your performance. The core muscles are connected to your legs, and it will affect the way you stand, squat, sit. It will also ease the burden of supporting your body weight isn’t just placed on your bones. Your lower back will be supported much better and will much less susceptible to any injuries.

As you do your own preparation to attempt one of the Selection courses in the U.S. military, make sure that incorporate core strength and core exercises into your workout routines. It will definitely help you out in the long haul and your body will thank you for it later.

As someone who suffered a back injury, building up your core strength after a serious injury is much harder. Protect your back and spine and build up the core muscles. It is not just about the abs…

My former physical therapist is now going to work for one of the premier sports clinics in the United States and as soon as he gets settled, I plan on getting a total body workup from him.

Photo: DOD

Originally published on Special