Although some amount of bone loss is expected as you age, you can help prevent it from happening prematurely and strengthen your spine with regular exercise. To find out more about how to build a strong spine, as well as the best exercises to strengthen it, we spoke to Nick Voci PT, DPT, a physiotherapist at Manchester Physical Therapy.
First, the risks of having a weak spine
The spinal column is made up of 33 vertebrae separated into different regions: seven cervical vertebrae in the neck, 12 thoracic vertebrae in the upper and middle back, seven lumbar vertebrae in the lower back, five fused vertebrae, which form the sacrum, the part of the spine that connects to the pelvis, and the coccyx (coccyx). Keeping these bones of the spine healthy and strong is vital to maintaining posture, function, mobility, and overall health.
“Weakness within the bones of the spine, or vertebrae, can be far-reaching due to the proximity of important structures such as nerves and their role in establishing support for most other muscles and extremities,” explains Dr. Voci. “Some of the risks include things like osteoporosis (a medical condition characterized by weakened and porous bones, increasing the risk of fractures and breaks), chronic pain, postural abnormalities such as kyphosis (a spinal disorder that causes an abnormal forward curvature of the upper back, leading to a stooped or rounded appearance), loss of motion, loss of function, and balance problems.”
Dr. Voci says that any of these spinal problems can lead to decreased levels of activity and function, which translates to a more sedentary lifestyle and worsening health outcomes.
Common symptoms of a weak spine
Although mild weakness or thinning of the bones in the spine may not be detectable at first, Dr. Voci says that weakness in the spine will present with a number of signs and symptoms once it becomes severe enough. “There can be many signs and symptoms associated with weak vertebrae, such as increased fractures, postural abnormalities such as kyphosis, loss of height, increased back stiffness including rib stiffness and shortness of breath, and increased back pain.”
How to strengthen the spine with exercise
The good news is that Dr. Voci says that exercise can be a powerful and effective tool for strengthening your spine.
“First, our bodies respond to the demands placed on them, so to improve bone density, we want to stress those bones by putting muscle force into the bone and adding weight to the bone,” he says. “For this reason, weight-bearing or standing exercises are better because they engage many of the core muscles, which in turn pull on the bones and make them stronger.” Adding load through the use of free weights or resistance bands increases the ability of the movements to strengthen bones.
Dr. Voci says that there are several different types of exercise that can improve bone density in the spine, and including a combination of several types in your exercise routine is the best way to have a healthy spine.
“Walking is a great cardiovascular (fitness) exercise that also improves bone density due to weight bearing, and should be done every day,” says Dr. Voci. “Depending on your health or fitness level, activities such as jumping rope or running will introduce higher levels of stress that may be more beneficial for spinal health, but may also be a greater risk to other joints in your body, so people with lower fitness levels may need to engage in lower-impact activities such as walking, swimming, or cycling to improve their cardiovascular and general fitness levels before introducing higher-intensity activities.”
Aside from cardiovascular exercise for bone density, Dr. Voci says that weight-bearing strength-training exercises are among the best types of exercise for increasing bone density because strength training loads the muscles and bones. He recommends that everyone incorporate strength training with weights two to three times a week to maintain a healthy spine.
The best resistance training exercises to strengthen the spine
Dr. Voci walked us through three of the best strength training exercises for building a stronger spine.
1. Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
“This exercise strengthens the hamstrings, gluteals, and lower back muscles, which will pull on the pelvis and vertebrae, either directly or through the fascia to promote bone growth,” explains Dr. Voci. “It’s also a weight-bearing exercise, which stimulates bone growth.” You can perform RDLs with free weights like dumbbells; beginners can start with just body weight.
As: Begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. This is your starting position. Rotate your hips and push your butt back while maintaining a slight bend in your knees, lowering your torso toward the floor until your weight is in line with your shins; do not arch or round your back. Return to a standing position by contracting your hamstrings and glutes. That’s a repeat. Repeat for 8-12 repetitions. (You can also do this with a mini resistance band by placing one side of the loop under your feet and holding the opposite end in both hands.)
2. Bent-over rows
Dr. Voci says that rows strengthen the rhomboids in the upper back and the smaller muscles that run along the spine. These muscles pull on the thoracic, cervical, and lumbar vertebrae to promote bone growth.
As: Start standing with your feet under your hips, hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms straight. Keep a gentle bend in your knees, then tilt your hips, lowering your torso to a 45-degree angle or parallel to the floor. Bend both elbows back and pull the dumbbells toward the bottom of your ribcage. Extend your arms again. That’s a repeat. Repeat for 8-12 repetitions.
Squats are a fundamental exercise for strengthening your lower body, but because it’s a weight-bearing exercise, it also helps strengthen your spine. “This exercise strengthens the hamstrings, glutes, and quadriceps, which will pull on the pelvis and vertebrae, either directly or through the fascia to promote bone growth,” says Dr. Voci.
As: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointed forward. Rotate your hips and push your butt back as if you were sitting in a chair. Keep your weight toward your heels, but balanced evenly between both feet. Bend your knees to lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor, making sure your back remains straight (avoid rounding or arching). Make sure your knees are still in line with your toes. Push through your heels to straighten your legs and extend your hips as you come back up to starting position. That’s a repeat. Repeat for 8-12 repetitions. (You may choose to hold weights in your hands to increase the intensity of the exercise once you have your form under control.)
How to get the most out of exercises to strengthen the spine
Be sure to start with light weights and gradually build up, advises Dr. Voci. “We want to expose our body to a new level of stress gradually and allow it to adjust,” he says.
Dr. Voci also says that you shouldn’t experience pain with any of these movements. If so, he should work with a fitness professional or physical therapist for an individualized back-strengthening program or to help him work on form and technique.
“Many of the ‘best’ exercises are technical exercises that may require some training before you get the best results,” says Dr. Voci. “Consulting a physical therapist can provide you with the best exercises based on your available movement and strength. They are better able to modify and adapt these exercises to minimize the risk of injury and tailor them to specific needs.”
But if you’re not experiencing pain, incorporating these exercises two to three times a week, as well as cardiovascular exercises as described by Dr. Voci, can help you build a stronger spine in no time.