Almost everyone has felt the uncomfortable and often times immobilizing feeling of low back pain, it is so common that 80% of people will feel low back pain at some point in their lives and some of those become chronic low back pain. Low back pain can be caused by an injury or strain, lifting something heavy with a rounded back, or twisting with something heavy are common causes of low back injury and usually heal over time. Some individuals end up with severe cases of low back pain caused by herniated or degenerated discs which can cause crippling pain.
If you have known me for a while or read my past fit tips you have heard me talk about my life long struggle with back pain. At times in my life I have had periods of intense low back pain that lasted for weeks and seemingly no amount of Ibuprofen or Chiropractor visits seemed to even help. But there is hope, whenever I feel my back pain come on again now I just do a few simple things and it is gone within a few days and sometimes even instantly!
Perhaps one of the most common causes for low back pain is something called Lower Cross Syndrome, this is simply a condition involving a combination of tight/ over-active and weak/ under-active muscles working against each other. This happens when someone has tight and over-active hip flexors and lumbar extensors pulling against weak and under-active Gluteus Maximus muscles and weak abdominal muscles. This causes the cross in the name Lower Cross Syndrome. Knowing the cause of the cross I just explained, the solution is actually quite simple, you activate and strengthen the under-active muscles, and you tone down the over-active ones.
My first recommendation if you have chronic and severe back pain issues is always to seek out a knowledgable professional like a Physical Therapist that can help you find long term relief and help to determine that you don’t have a more serious problem. For many people I have found that a simple sequence of exercises can do wonders for low back pain. One option is to come by the gym and ask for Jesse and a free fitness assessment and a quick rundown of these exercises “wink, wink” but here’s my best attempt at describing it for you to try at home!
The first step is to tone down the over active muscles. Now you will need one tool for this step and that is a Foam Roller, if you don’t have one of these I strongly recommend getting one. There are thousands of options and they are available at most chain stores like Walmart or Shopko and of course online. I recommend starting with a softer and longer foam roller if you haven’t done this before as very tight muscles can be a bit painful to roll over at first.
– Once you have your foam roller you simply lie down on it belly down with the roller on the front of your thighs, you simply “roll” over your legs until you find a tight and painful spot. Once you find the spot (trust me you’ll know) STOP Rolling, sit on the tender spot for at least 30 seconds up to one minute or until you feel a release in that muscle it will become less painful to have pressure on that spot. Find at least two spots then move on to the next area, now roll a bit to the outside of your leg and work on whats called the TFL muscle, its a smaller muscle I like to call the hip pocket muscle, it resides just below your hip bone about where your front pockets would be in a pair of jeans. It will be very easy to find tender spots here if you have tight hips.
– Now that you worked out that tension its time to stretch those short muscles out. You just need two simple stretches, first is the quad stretch. Chances are you have done this stretch before to stretch out your thigh muscles. Start by standing up straight with a wall or chair to help keep your balance, grab one leg by your foot and hold it. One common mistake is to pull hard or pull your leg away to get a better stretch, instead just tilt your pelvis backwards by drawing your belly button in and squeezing your glutes, hold this stretch for 30 seconds to one minute or until you feel the tension in those muscles release. Next we will stretch that TFL and the rest of the hip flexors with a kneeling hip flexor stretch, you start by just getting down on one knee and again tilting your pelvis backwards. You will probably already feel the stretch once you do this, a common mistake with this stretch is to lean forward to feel the stretch more. Just keep your pelvis tilted back to feel the stretch, to target the TFL you can raise the arm on the side of the knee that’s down and turn your torso slightly to the back. To intensify this stretch more you can bend your body away or just hike your hip out ever so slightly. It sounds like a lot of motions to remember, I like to joke with my clients and say “just hold your tongue right and you’ll get it” It may take a few tries to master but once you “feel” the stretch where you need it, you won’t forget. Again hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds or until you feel the release.
– Next we activate those under-active sitting muscles with a few simple exercises. First is the leg raise: start by lying down on your belly you can rest your head on your hands in front of you. The exercise is simple, you just lift your leg! But first, you have to hold your tongue right to target the right muscle! To do this you extend your foot by pointing your toes, keep your knees straight by contracting your quads (thigh muscles) now raise your leg up and slightly away from your body. You should feel this instantly right in your Glute muscle. You do not need to raise your leg very far, if you feel a pinch in your back, you are raising your leg too far, keep the quads tight and just pulse your leg up and down slowly about 20 times each leg.
– The next exercise is the Bridge. Now you turn to your back and lie down with your knees bent. You want to engage your core and protect your back by again drawing your belly button to the floor, this will rotate your pelvis backwards and straighten your lumbar spine. If you aren’t sure if you are doing it right, check by trying to fit your hand between the floor and your low back, if your back is flat and you can’t fit your hand under it you are good. Next, keep your core engaged and your pelvis tilted and drive your butt into the air and squeeze those Glutes! Stop once your body is straight, don’t over extend, you shouldn’t be able to if you’re squeezing hard! Hold at the top for a few seconds and then repeat up to 20 times. For a good challenge you can start doing this as an isometric exercise and see how long you can hold it. Once you can hold for a minute you are ready to graduate to harder exercises.
– Last you can tighten up your core with the best core exercise, Planks! Planks are pretty simple and you have probably at least seen them done if not done them yourself. Start on your belly and put your elbows on the floor with your arms bent. You want to stack your shoulders right over the elbows, now just raise up the rest of your body with your toes on the floor. The key here is to keep your back perfectly straight (its the back we are trying to help here right?) don’t try to make it easier by raising your butt up or sagging your back, this will be counter-productive and even hurt your back more. A trick to keeping your back straight and to help you hold the position is to again, squeeze your Glutes and your quads while you keep your belly button sucked in. Yea yea, I talk about squeezing Glutes a lot, get over it… its good for you trust me! just hold the plank for as long as you can, even if it’s 10-15 seconds just rest and do another set for 3-4 sets and just keep challenging yourself to hold longer.
Thats it, just do this sequence every day it shouldn’t take more than a 5-10 minutes. You can do it while you watch your favorite TV show and you’ll hardly even know you’re exercising! Trust me, from my own experience I know you can live pain free it just takes a little bit of work. The more you work, the better you will feel!