Have you woken up with a “stiff lower back”? No herniated disks, no recent physical injuries, no reasonable explanation? The answer is most likely not your lower back at all but rather tightness in the muscles that surround and pull on the lower back. What muscles you ask, who are these culprits of pain and discomfort? Every person is unique so causes of lower back pain may differ from person to person but there are a few major players which everyone should be aware of and tend to accordingly.
Some muscles/tendons must be inhbited and stretched. These include your:
- Hip Flexors
- Iliotibial (IT) Band
Once you’ve worked on these these, you can begin the process of re-educating your body to promote better posture and prevent further pain points from occurring.
You’ll want to activate and strengthen your:
- Trapezius (Lower, Mid, Upper)
If you really want to rid yourself of lower back pain and prevent in from coming back, you’d be wise to tend to everything on this list, not just the things you “think” may be an issue.
INHIBIT AND STRETCH
By Inhibit I am referring to Self-Myofascial release, most commonly achieved with a foam roller. When a muscle becomes too tight or “unhealthy” it will develop muscular “knots”, when pressure is applied these “knots” will feel like pressure points of pain.
“Hip Flexor” is simply a collective term which refers to a group of several small muscles located deep in the front of the hip which connect your legs, pelvis, and abdomen.
The average person who works out is most likely ignoring this muscle group altogether and is perhaps entirely unaware of just how wound up and tight it can get, eventually causing lower back pain. Because your hip flexors are really just a collection of tiny muscles, there are quite a few ways to inhibit and stretch them, but I generally recommend the following:
- foam rolling
- kneeling hip flexor stretch
- spiderman stretch
Foam rolling is self explanatory (just get a foam roller and just kind of…roll), but let’s briefly go over the others which you’re probably less familiar with…
kneeling hip flexor stretch: Lunge forward with knee on ground(preferred on mat). Place forward foot beyond the knee. Straighten the hip of your back leg by pushing hips forward without extending lower back. Repeat on both sides.
Spiderman stretch: Start in the push up position. Step forward with right leg outside of right hand. Push hips forward and slightly rotate torso so that your right hand is pointing towards the ceiling. Repeat on both sides.
ILIOTIBIAL BAND (IT) BAND
The Iliotibial band, referred to in the illustration below as the Iliotibial “tract” (same thing), is that long, thick strip of connective tissue which runs along the outside of your thigh, from the bottom of your pelvis to your knee.
Since it’s not a “muscle” that you normally train, chances are you’ve neglected your IT Band and that may very well be a primary cause of your lower back pain. If left unstretched, the IT Band gets tighter and tighter with every workout and places the surrounding muscles under additional stress.
The two best ways to inhibit and stretch your IT Band are:
- Foam Rolling
- IT Band Standing Stretch
Foam Rolling: Position yourself in a sideways plank position with a foam roller under the outside of your thigh, place as much of your own weight as you can manage on that area, and roll back and forth slowly. If you’ve never done this before, don’t be too alarmed if this movement is quite painful. That’s normal and it just means you need to take it slowly.
Ideally, you should roll it out until there is no more pain, even with all your body weight applied.
IT Band Standing Stretch: Stand with your right leg crossed in front of your left leg. Extend your left arm overhead reaching towards the right side. Slightly push your hips left. Repeat on both sides.
Your Adductors are long stretches of muscle on your inner thigh. The term “Adduction”, in the context of Anatomy, refers to any motion that pulls a structure/limb (in this case your leg) towards the center (midline) of the body. So just think of your Adductors as the little muscles holding he inside of your leg together.
Again, this is one those little muscles that hardly seems important until that fateful momentum when you tear your groin or, perhaps more pertinent to this article, the accumulation of stress results in lower backpain. Trust me. This is one small muscle group you definitely DO NOT want to neglect.
There are a few ways to inhibit and stretch this area, including:
- Foam Rolling
- Nose To Toes
- Rollover To V-Sits
- Frog Jumps
Since we’ve already been over foam rolling, I’ll skip the explanation of it (you get it), but if you’re asking for trouble if you skip doing it!
Nose to your toes: a classic stretch everyone has done in gym class. Sit down with the bottoms of your feet touching and your knees out. Lean forward and try to touch your nose to your toes.
Rollovers into V-sit: an amazing dynamic stretch made popular by Defranco’s Agile 8 warm up routine. Sit down on a mat. Roll back over until your toes touch behind your head. Roll forward with your legs wide spread(like a V) use to momentum to reach as far forward as you can. Repeat ten to twenty times.
Frog jumps: start in a push up position. Jump both feet forward outside of your hands. Hop your legs back to starting position. Repeat ten to twenty times.
Your Piriformis a small muscle located deep within the gluteal (butt) region of the Pelvis which is partially responsible for the rotation of the the femur (thigh bone) in the Hip Joint.
It’s a tiny muscle which is relatively difficult to target, so I recommend the following:
- Foam Rolling
- Seated Cross Legged Stretch
- Tumminello Piriformis Stretch
If you foam roll your gluteal region (butt) thoroughly, you’ll hit the Piriformis at some point, but it’s pretty deep in there so the following stretches should also be utilized:
Seated cross legged stretch: sit down on a chair or bench. Cross your left leg over your right so that your left ankle is just past your right knee. Slightly lean forward. Repeat on both sides.
Tumminello piriformis stretch: start with hand and knees in 4 point position on the floor. Cross right ankle over left ankle behind you. Slightly push hips to the right. Repeat on both sides.
Yes, we’re talking about your traps here, that muscle group located at the top of your back which connects your lower back, lats, neck, and shoulder.
It may come as a surprise, but tight traps can lead to lower back pain, especially if combined with a tightness in one of the hip/leg muscles previously discussed.
Think of it like this:
Your traps are constantly under some type of tension when you train pretty much any other muscle group and may, over time, become tighter and tighter. Combine this with a tight Hip Flexor and you’ve got yourself a game a muscular tug of war and no matter who wins, you’re lower back loses.
When it comes to giving your traps a good stretch, I recommend the following:
- Lacrosse Ball Against Wall
- Chin Tucks
- Levator Scapulae Stretch
Locrosse Ball Against The Wall: This is exactly what it sounds like. Get yourself a Lacrosse ball, position it between your traps and the wall, and roll around, using your body weight to apply the desired amount of pressure.
Chin tucks: Start with your back against a wall and your feet a few inches forward so your upper and lower back are completely flat against the wall. With your chin tucked pull your head back until it touches the wall. Hold for three to five seconds and repeat. It is important that your chin is down so that your head is pulled straight back and is not looking up.
Levator scapulae Stretch: Rotate your head fortyfive degrees to the right. Point your nose at your right elbow. Gently place your right hand behind your head and slightly pull at an angle towards your knee. Hold for five to ten seconds and repeat on both sides.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
If you’re already suffering from lower back pain, you need to address the issue now. Doing nothing is the best way to make your problem much worse and potentially harder to reverse.
It is important to note that these muscular knots will not only cause pain, but will also decrease the muscle elasticity which will prevent the muscle from reaching its full strength and power potential.
Take, for example, a person who spends 8 hours a day seated at a desk. The seated position tightens their hip flexors over time until they develop muscular knots in the hip flexors. These now “unhealthy” hip flexors apply tension to the lower back, ultimately resulting in the lower back becoming irritated and stiff.
Foam rolling followed by stretching the muscle will dramatically
- Decrease The Tension
- Relieve Pain
- Increase Muscle Elasticity
…but remember, that’s only half the equation.
To prevent these types of issues in the future, your body needs to be re-educated in order to create better posture and use the proper muscles to prevent the body from developing further knots. Now it’s time to Activate and Strengthen the key muscles to good posture and a life with less pain.
ACTIVATE AND STRENGTHEN
Once you’ve thoroughly inhibited and stretched all those little muscles that appears to be the culprits of your lower back pain, you need to address flaws in your posture and form by activating and strengthening under-utilized muscles.
Tight muscles are certainly a primary cause of lower back pain, but weakness in supporting muscles is also a major factor. Strengthening these weak muscles will force you to maintain better posture and form, ultimately taking the stress off your lower back.
Your Glutes are simply the muscle in your butt. They support any and all movements in the lower body and provide support for your the base of your spine, helping to stablize your upper body.
There are a ton of exercises which incorporate your Glutes, including compound lifts such as Squats and Deadlifts. However, if you’ve been squatting and deadlifting and your Glutes are a weak point, your form is probably incorrect so you’d be wise to back off the heavy compound lifts for a little while so you can correct the issue before it becomes an actual problem.
When it comes to specifically strengthening the Glutes, I recommed the following:
- Glute bridges
- Hip thrusts
- Hip hinges
Glute Bridge: Start lying down on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are flat on the ground. Keep your feet hip width apart and your toes facing away from you. Slightly contract your core so that your lower back is flat against the ground. Press heels into the floor contract glutes so that hips raise off of the floor. Repeat ten to twenty times. It’s important to feel your glutes and do not raise your hips too high or you will hyperextend your back.
Hip Thrusts: Start with upper back against a seat or bench and butt on the floor. Bend your knees to a fortyfive degree angle so your feet are flat on the floor. Contract your glutes so your hips raise off of the floor. It is the same movement as the glute bridge, the only difference is your back is elevated to increase range of motion.
Step-Ups: Place right foot onto a stair or bench. Pressing through your right heel contract your right glute and right quad. Keep the movement completely controlled on the way up and on the way down. Repeat ten to twenty times on both sides.
Hip Hinge: Stand about a half of a step in front of a wall with your back facing the wall. Keep your weight on your heels and push your glutes back until your butt touches the wall. You should feel a good stretch in your hamstrings while performing this movement.
Most people walk around with their hip flexors powering the majority of their movement. This is a huge mistake that only leads to pain. The glutes are the strongest muscle group in the body and were given to us to power our movement(walking,standing,running,ect).
If you focus you can feel your glutes contracting and working to allow you to walk with good posture. Sure you can practice walking with good posture but there are exercises that will wake up or (Activate) your glutes.
Once the muscular knots have dissipated and the body is fully aware of all the muscle fibers in the glutes, you will naturally start to use them more in your day to day movements. The same goes for the mid-traps.
Recall from above that your Trapezius muscles are located between your lats, shoulders, and neck.
If you take a look around the gym, you’ll probably see some people doing shrugs in an attempt to build their upper traps, but rarely does the Mid-Trap receive the attention it needs/deserves.
- Mid-trap resistance band rows
- Band pull aparts
- Cable rows
Mid-Trap resistance back row: Wrap the band around a pole or secure in a door so the band can be pulled on. With one end of the band in each hand, stand tall with your shoulders depressed. Contract mid-traps, pull hands toward your torso and keep your shoulders down to prevent the upper traps from taking over the movement. Repeat ten to twenty times.
Band pull aparts: Hold arms out in front of you with the band in your hands about shoulder width apart. Keep your traps low and your elbows straight as you pull your hands away from each other until the band touches your chest. Throughout the movement feel your mid-traps and posterior deltoids contract. Repeat ten to twenty times.
If your upper Trapezius and anterior deltoids are overpowering, you will end up with a forward head posture which can lead to severe neck pain. By strengthening the mid-Trapezius your shoulders and neck will naturally start to pull back aligning your body into better posture.
When most people think “Core” they think “Abs”, but your Abdominal muscles are merely a small part of the massive group of muscles that actually make up your core, including:
- Rectus Abdominis
- Transversus Abdominis
- Internal Obliques
- External Obliques
- Erector Spinae
Unless you’re currently studying to become a fitness professional, you don’t need to remember all those complicated names. The point is simply that your core is an all-enncompassing part of your body that is often neglected.
These muscles combined cover the entire mid section, what many people would refer to as the abs, and lower back.
By increasing overall core stability and glute strength you will become far less prone to injury, other benefits include increase in general balance(no need to hold on to the dirty subway, you can balance internally with your muscles), rapid increase on squat deadlift and other main lifts, improves overall coordination which improves overall life quality.
Doing Ab-specific exercises will definitely strengthen your abs, but focusing on your Abs without paying attention to your other Core muscles is like buying express ticket to lower back-pain town…You don’t want to go there.
- Plank variations
- Roll outs
- Hip hinges
- Pallof press
Planks: There are many variations to the plank. Whether it be single leg, single arm, plank climbers, or time based (possibly try tabata method with planks). One thing needs to always stay consistent and that is good form. Start in pushup position. Bend your elbows ninety degrees and allow your weight to rest on your forearms. With your elbows directly below your shoulders contract your core and glutes, be sure to keep your body in a straight line like a board or i should say plank.
Pallof press: place standard handle on cable and adjust height to slightly below shoulders height. Grab the handle with both hands. Take about two steps back and rotate your body ninety degrees while keeping your hands against your chest. Extend your arms straight forward and use your core to stop the cable from rotating your torso. Hold for three to five seconds then bring hand back to chest. Repeat ten to fifteen times.
A Few Final Words On Lower Back Pain…
There are an endless amount of potential causes of lower back pain, but it usually comes down to a combination of:
- Tight Muscles/Tendons
- Weak Supporting Muscles
If you focus on inhibiting and stretching all the little tight muscles and tendons which impact tension in your lower back, then take the time to strengthen the supporting muscle groups and develop proper posture/form, you may be surprised how quickly your age-old back problems disappear!