When you look in the mirror, it's pretty easy to tell if your belly is out of shape. You see a few extra inches, a little too much softness. Your first impulse is to start doing those all-too-famous abdominal crunches you keep hearing about.
But what about your back muscles? Because you don't see them as much as other parts of your body, you probably don't give a thought to an underdeveloped back. But then pain strikes. Your back goes out or you begin to feel a nagging ache at the end of every day.
What you are feeling may be the cumulative effect of back abuse. Back pain often results from years of sloppy posture or poor lifting and bending habits. Also, an improper strength-training regimen can hurt your back by neglecting certain muscles, such as focusing on your abs but not your lower back.
Many people assume that if their back is hurting, exercise might do more harm than good. But that's not always the case. It's a good idea before starting an exercise program to talk with your doctor to get her opinion about the cause of your back pain and what types of activities are appropriate for you.
The good news is that it is never too late to remedy this problem with the right exercise. And it won't require a gym or a personal trainer.
Often you can strengthen your back muscles with extension exercises that will protect your spine and effectively relieve pain.
An example of an extension is when you stand up and arch your back to counter the effects of prolonged sitting in a hunched position. There are many variations of back extensions, but this basic move is safe and not too strenuous. It uses the floor for balance and support, and it evenly targets the upper and lower back. You get a good stretch for the front of your torso as well.
Before starting, warm up with a brisk walk or gentle calisthenics. It is important to move smoothly and in a controlled manner with this exercise. Jerking, tugging or forcing can irritate your back and may not work the desired muscles.
Position 1: Lie on the floor facing down, with your hands clasped behind your back, palms toward the ceiling. Let your elbows bend to the side and rest as close to the floor as possible. Bring both legs together and bend your knees with your feet directly above them. Turn your head to the side so that one cheek is facing the floor. (You should switch cheeks with each repetition.) Inhale to begin.
Position 2: As you exhale, draw in your abdominal muscles and drop your tailbone toward the floor. (You should feel a small space between your belly and the floor.) Straighten and raise your arms behind you. Use your back muscles to lift your chest, shoulders and head off the floor. Now slowly straighten and raise your legs. Keep your hands clasped and your legs together in a parallel position at all times.
At the top of the lift, roll your shoulders open by squeezing your shoulder blades together and sliding them down your back. Keep your gaze forward or look down to avoid straining your neck. Concentrate on feeling a lengthening, not a lifting, sensation through your legs. Hold the peak of the extension three to four seconds.
Return to the starting position and repeat. Beginners can do three repetitions, every other day. As you get stronger, you can increase the number of repetitions.
After doing this exercise, it may feel good to do an opposite stretch, such as resting on your hands and knees and rounding your back, or just sitting back on your heels from a kneeling position. We all know people who have been knocked out of commission by a bad back. Don't be one of them. Take action and extend yourself now to make your back strong and prevent pain later.
Joan Voight, a San Francisco-based journalist, contributed to this column.
* Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose column runs the first and third Mondays of each month. Her latest videos are "Ease Into Fitness" and "YogaSculpt." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.