Yes, I just made that up. We have a syndrome for everything else, why not “burning back”? It’s catchy, rhythmical, and it conjures up a powerful image and it’s totally fictional. However, it leads me to this question: ever have achy or burning lower back muscles that only get better after you lie down or rest? If so, read on….

I just finished a very informative book by Dr. Stuart McGill, PhD, a professor at the University of Waterloo, about lower back disorders and performance. An important concept he discussed that I thought was very applicable to most of us was one of “capacity and tolerance” as it relates to lower back.

Let me explain: In order to generate any substantial force in our lower or upper extremities, we need to have a stable torso and lumbar spine. If the stability in the lower back is compromised, so is the force output and performance, regardless of the activity. In my high level athletes, it could be hip pain at mile 40 of a 100 mile race or in my sedentary clients it could be pain after unloading a dishwasher.

We only go as far as the stability in our back takes us.

“Capacity” can be defined as the amount of work possible by an individual, like gas in our tank or money in the bank. When we increase our core strength, we are increasing our “capacity” for work/activity. Every time you plank, you just made a deposit in the bank!

“Tolerance” can be defined as the actual work the individual can do. Think of this as the miles per gallon or the actual amount of money in the bank.

Everyone’s tolerance for work/activity is different; higher if healthy and strong and lower if injured or deconditioned. Here’s the important, take home message: When we have used up our capacity for the day, we are done. Our lower back can no longer provide us with the stability needed for movement and we usually start to hurt and need to rest or stop the activity. Ever know anyone who needs to “rest” in the early afternoon because their pain levels have escalated and after they rest, they can then function for a bit longer? They have used up their capacity for work and their tolerance is pretty low.

In addition to increasing our “capacity” through strengthening exercises, we must also be aware of wasting our precious “capacity”. We waste “capacity” by mundane things we all do everyday, unaware of the ills of our ways. Are you a bit slumped as you read this? You just used some of your “capacity” by just sitting in a poor posture. Maybe your exercise warm up is too long, or maybe you just bent over and twisted even though you know it stresses your back. Learning to “hip hinge” and “abdominal brace” are great ways to get more mileage out of your back. Talk to your therapist about them if those are foreign concepts.

Now stop reading and put some gas in the tank. Side plank for 2 one minute intervals without whining!!
Ed Deboo, PT