The Hidden Muscle That Causes Runners Back Pain

A weak deep core could be the reason for your back pain.

While there’s no denying that running can provide major health benefits, pounding the pavement can leave you with annoying aches and pains, sometimes deterring you from engaging in the sport altogether. But here’s some good news for runners who experience lower-back pain: Science has revealed that the best chance of relieving it is strengthening your deep core.

Researchers at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center suggest that you develop the muscles behind your abdominals that run along your spine (who knew?) called the “deep core.” These muscles, which include the transverse abdominis and lumbar multifidus, form a “corset” around your lower vertebrae, supporting your posture and helping to control your breathing.

Researchers studied computer models of the human body and used motion detection technology to examine every element of the models’ strides. When deep core muscle weakness increased, researchers found that superficial muscles like the abdominals were forced to take on more of the work.

The consequence for real-world runners is that with fewer muscles pitching in, their abdominal muscles are likely to become fatigued faster, inhibiting their performance and endurance. What’s more, a weakened deep core also leads to an increase in spinal loading, which can cause lower-back pain.

So it turns out they don’t call it your core for nothing. Developing core strength can improve your balance, digestion and breathing as well as prevent pain and injury. Now we know that it can also help you to become a badass runner. But doing 100 sit-ups a day won’t cut it here, according to the study’s lead author Ajit Chaudhari, an associate professor of physical therapy, biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering and orthopedic surgery at Ohio State.

Your core muscles are responsible for keeping your spine straight and secure, so exercises that require you to repeatedly bend those muscles aren’t effectively training your entire core. Dr. Richard Guyer, president of the Texas Back Institute, explains that, on top of putting your spine at risk of injury, crunches and sit-ups only target your superficial abdominal muscles, ignoring your oblique muscles, back extenders, transverse abdominis and more.

To actually engage your deep core muscles, practice core-stabilizing moves, the best of which is always a crowd favorite — planks. The best part? You can plank just about anywhere at anytime.