Exercises may not be problem with back muscles

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DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am a 76-year-old male, 6 feet 1 inch tall and weigh 185 pounds. I keep in pretty fair shape. However, recently I have started to have upper-back pain when I lift anything heavy. I keep my back straight and lift, as much as possible, with my legs. I believe my problem is a need to strengthen my back muscles. What exercises accomplish this? – J.E.

ANSWER: I’m not convinced your problem is weak back muscles. Many things cause back pain, and exercises can make some of them worse. If these exercise hurt or if the pain remains much longer, get to your doctor to find out exactly what’s wrong with your back. It could be a bulging disc, a compression fracture of one of the vertebrae (backbones), a muscle strain and on and on.

For upper-back muscles, chin-ups on a horizontal bar are good exercises. Grab the bar with your knuckles pointing forward. That hand position puts the emphasis on the upper-back muscles.

If you belong to a gym and it has a pull-down machine (properly called a lat or latissimus pull-down machine), take advantage of it. It gives upper-back muscles a very good workout.

A simple stretch for back muscles might help you. While seated in a chair, bend forward until you feel a slight pull in the back muscles. You don’t have to touch the floor with your fingertips, but as you gain more flexibility you can try to reach that goal. Hold the stretched position for 15 seconds and then repeat the exercise 10 times.

Strong stomach muscles help support the back, and an abdominal crunch is an excellent stomach exercise. Lie on your back on the floor with your knees bent and the soles of your feet resting on the floor. Pull your stomach inward as though you wanted your belly button to touch your back. Then raise your head and shoulders off the floor. If you clear your shoulderblades from the floor, that’s enough of a rise. Hold that position for a count of five and then repeat 10 times if you can. The goal is three sets of 20 exercises.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Is a three-times-a-week, 45-minute workout jogging on a treadmill a recommended aerobic routine for an adult male, or does it burn muscle rather than fat? And does it reduce testosterone production? I have read that aerobic exercise shifts from fat-burning to protein-burning and shuts down testosterone production. – D.H.

ANSWER: I can’t find any support for the idea that aerobic exercise, like jogging, burns protein (muscle) as a source of fuel more than it burns fat. I don’t believe it.

Testosterone production varies throughout the day. It peaks in the morning hours. The average blood testosterone level for young adult males has a wide range. Endurance runners have a slightly lower blood level of testosterone than do nonrunners. The difference is truly small, and not enough to affect a man’s ability to build muscles. Runners’ levels are well within the normal limits.

Weightlifting exercises increase testosterone blood levels.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am 14 and don’t have a lot of money, so I can’t buy barbells or dumbbells. I am interested in muscle-building. How can I do it without having to spend much money? – J.J.

ANSWER: Use your body weight. It won’t cost you a penny. It’s a good substitute for barbells and dumbbells.

Consider a push-up – the exercise you do lying on the floor on your stomach. With your hands shoulder-width apart, you raise yourself up so that your body is supported on your hands and your toes. Push-ups exercise the pectoralis (chest muscle), the triceps (the muscle on the back of the upper arm), the deltoid (the muscle on top of the shoulder) and the trapezius (an upper-back muscle). If you can’t manage a push-up with your body weight supported only by your toes and hands, then support the body with your knees and hands. You’ll eventually get to the point where you can support your weight on your hands and toes.

Vary the distance between your hands. With the hands close to each other, the triceps bear the brunt of the exercise. When they are farther apart, chest muscles are emphasized.

Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.

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