We use our back muscles each and every day. They keep us upright when standing or sitting. They also allow us to bend and twist and turn our torso. Of course, there are many muscles in the back that help aid in doing all of these movements, but the main ones are called the Erector Spinae Group.
The Erector Spinae Group (ESGs) consist of three sets of muscles that run along both sides your spine and support the spine from the sacrum all the way up to base of your head. The muscle that is the closest to the spine is the Spinalis, which is also the smallest of the three muscles. The next one is Longissimus and is the longest in the group. The third muscle in the group is the Iliocostalis and extends over the ribs.
All three of the ESGs work together to keep your spine erect. The functions and movements of this muscle group are the same for all three. Bilaterally (since the muscles run on either side of the spine) they contract to stabilize the spine to allow you to be upright, as well as pull you even further back as if you are getting ready to do the limbo. When lengthened bilaterally, you are able to fold over forward to reach for your toes. When only one side of the muscles are contracting, it causes you to unilaterally bend to that same side, bending your torso in lateral flexion.
If your ESGs are too tight, stretching and massages are great at helping alleviate any pain and stiffness you may be feeling. To stretch your ESGs, doing gentle stretches that fold your body forward over your legs, such as a hurdler stretch, or the basic hamstring stretches where you either are sitting or standing with your legs straightened and you reach for your toes, are helpful. Also, sitting back into the yoga position of Child’s Pose is another great one for lengthening the ESGs.
If your ESGs are weak, it is best to focus on some exercises to help strengthen the back. A couple of common ones that you can do are Superman and Deadlifts. To do Superman, you need to lay on the floor, face down. Reach both arms out in front of you and your legs extended out. At the same time, slowly raise both arms and legs off the floor, creating a slight bow shape. Make sure not to use your arm and leg muscles to raise your body, but to focus on your core and back muscles to do the work. Deadlifts, done either with dumbbells or with a barbell, are also great at focusing on strengthening your back and hamstring muscles. If you have never done a deadlift before, it is best to have a professional trainer or coach advise you in the movements to make sure you are properly doing the motion and to not injure yourself.
Your Erector Spinae Group are a very important group of muscles that work together to support your torso and spine in everyday activities. Bending forward, backward, to either side, and even rotating and twisting your torso can become painful and difficult if these muscles are not feeling their best. Take care to strengthen, stretch, and even massage these muscles on a regular basis. Your body and balance will thank you.
Courtney Truax, LMT is a graduate of East West College of the Healing Arts in Portland, Oregon. She is licensed through the Oregon Board of Massage Therapy and a member of the American Massage Therapy Association. She has her own studio massage practice in the heart of downtown Lake Oswego, Oregon.