Many of you reading this are probably sitting, which means you might fall into the one third of the population that experience a very common gym issue of Low Back Pain, (LBP). Now, if you have a severe back issue such as sciatica, injured vertebrae or some other chronic low back pain issue, then this article is not for you. I am only discussing musculoskeletal issues that are more acute, when the low back has “tightness” rather then “pain”.
Here are a few common low back issues that are contributing to the feeling of tightness and pain.
1. Tightness– Some muscle groups such as the hip flexors, hamstrings, piriformis and erector spinae (low back muscles) can be a little tighter than normal.
2. Weakness– in your core (not just your abs) and some of the muscles of your posterior chain.
3. Dehydration– drink more water and electrolytes.
Our muscles are used for protection of organs, storage of nutrients and energy, and most importantly movement and support. If you have a decent understanding of your anatomy, it’s important for you to know that nearly everyone has some muscle imbalances.
Reason number 1: Muscle Tightness & Imbalance
The better you can determine what your imbalances are the better you will be able to work on them, the better you will feel. For example, if your chest and shoulders are tight from either over working the chest muscles, sitting at the computer for several hours a day or hunching forward from lack of confidence, then inversely your upper back muscles might be tight and weak. Thus lacking full development because you are so tight in the front, you can’t get full range of motion in your back.
Now take that example and apply it to your hip flexors and hamstrings. When they are tight from too much sitting, “sitting is the new smoking” says my buddy Spencer Meyer, then the mobility in your hips and spine worsen. This can begin to put stress and tension on your low back muscles. Tight muscles also limit our recruitment of opposing muscle groups, for example having tight hip flexors is a direct reflection to low back tightness because the tightness in your hips is limiting your engagement of your glutes, giving your low back more work to do. So the opposing muscle of the hip flexors are the butt… if that is weak and underdeveloped you get the perfect recipe for stress on your low back. So, lets give your low back a day off…go work your glutes and stretch your hips.
Now we know some reasons why? So, what should you do? Stretch them… If you are someone who is living the fitness lifestyle, then you should already be stretching the entire body almost every day. A little bit here and there, during your warm-up dynamically stretch, after workout static stretches and possibly be incorporating in some yoga. From now on, over the next 6-8 weeks put more priority on stretching the hamstrings, hip flexors and low back. Stretch them every day, sometimes twice for 10-20 minutes. DO all different forms of stretching, there are several, and I’m not going to go over all of them. Be diligent, consistent and disciplined with your flexibility until your low back is feeling better.
Reason number 2: Weak Core Muscles
Next, without the support of strong core muscles, our low back is having to work twice as hard, putting more stress on it, leaving you feeling tight and tired “back” there. So, let’s strengthen that trunk. One of the most important things to remember when exercising your core, is understand that core is much more than just doing sit-ups and abs. Your core consists of 5 major areas that are all equally as important, some maybe even more important than the abs.
These 5 muscle groups are:
Transverse abdominis– which are the deep core muscles. Think plank position or sucking in your gut before someone punches you. The transverse abdominis is one of the most important muscle groups to train and get up to par, it is one of the only core muscles closely related to your spine unlike your abs.
Internal and External Obliques– These are your twisting (internal) and bending (external) muscles. Although they work together as a team I consider them 2 different areas.
Erector Spinae– This is your low back muscle group that runs along the length of your spine. By strengthening your erector spinae, you will provide better support for your posterior chain and give your low back a rest.
Rectus Abdominis (abs) – Although it’s important to strengthen your abs for posture and support it can sometimes be overdone. By working on proper muscle balance you can help reduce your LBP. For every set of crunches you do, do equal back extensions.
Now that you have a better understanding of the core muscles. When you train your core on your next workout, don’t just do 100 sit-ups, do all the muscle groups. Here are some example exercises, Youtube them if you don’t know or E-mail me with questions.
1. Transverse Abdominis- Planks, advanced planks, vacuum’s and more engagement during exercises.
2. Internal Obliques- cable rotations, oblique crunches, medicine ball twists, side planks.
3. External Obliques- Side bends with dumbbell or plate, squirms, side planks.
4. Rectus Abdominis- Decline Bench sit-ups, leg raises, ab bench machines.
5. Erector Spinae- Back extension, super mans, ab wheel, plank.
Hit your core 2X a week. In the beginning of your workout, during and after. Have good MMC, don’t use other muscle groups for momentum and squeeze the shit out of the targeting muscle. Do 1-2 different exercises for each area of the core at 3 sets per exercise. Each week you should be advancing the exercise slightly with longer sets, less base of support or more resistance. Do this for 2-3 months until low back is feeling good and the tightness has subsided.
Reason number 3: Hydration
Plain and simple, drink more water. Dehydration is a major cause to tight muscles. If you don’t hydrate regularly, your back may not get any better.
I try and keep it very simple and straight forward with fitness. So, now that you know a little more about your body and about a very common issue in fitness, apply it. Just knowing doesn’t do anything. Apply what you learn so you can stop an issue from getting worse and so you can stop the complaining.
If you need more clarification of LBP, I give everyone in the world 1 complimentary session to help you. Contact me to schedule a session.
Jeff Mendoza, B.S. Kinesiology