A healthy back allows for movement in different directions, including side-to-side motion (lateral flexion). Side bends – this column’s exercise of the month – help to increase both strength and flexibility of the low back and the abdominals, supporting the spine and helping to improve posture.
Muscles worked include those along the low back (quadratus lumborum), the erector spinae, which lie on both sides of the spinal column, and the internal and external obliques, which act to flex and rotate the spine.
Stand with feet approximately shoulder width apart, holding onto one dumbbell in your right hand. In a slow and controlled manner, slowly lean to the right just to the point where a gentle stretch is felt along the left side of the waistline/low back.
Pause for a second, and then in one slow movement and keeping yourself from twisting, return to an upright position and to the left side, contracting the left side muscles of the waist and using the resistance of the dumbbell for strengthening. After completing the set, repeat, holding the dumbbell in the left hand.
Side bends can be used primarily as a core strengthener (moderate resistance), or strictly as a flexibility exercise (lighter resistance). It is not necessary to use a heavy weight in order to obtain benefits from this exercise. In fact, using weights that are too heavy places needless stress on the spinal column and can lead to low back pain.
The exercise can be performed standing or seated, although while standing, more of the stabilizing postural muscles are involved.
The arms should remain straight during each repetition, although avoid locking out the elbow joint. As you are leaning from side to side, do not use the arm muscles to lift the dumbbell. Lifting should come from the midsection.
Perform side bends only in a slow and controlled manner. When leaning side to side, do not twist the torso, and avoid overstretching.
Keep the shoulders lined up, and bend to the side no more than 30 degrees, the normal range of motion for lateral flexion.
Start with one to two sets of eight to 12 repetitions on each side. Add reps and/or sets as you become stronger.
To maintain strength balance, perform other abdominal exercises along with side bends.
Marjie Gilliam is a personal trainer and fitness consultant.