Usually in this blog I like to try and keep things light and fun. Every once in a while, I feel the need to dive into a more serious topic. Back pain is something that is horrifyingly common in American life (estimates range from 65 million to 110 million Americans) and can become bad enough to be debilitating. Unfortunately, back pain will rear its ugly head when working out too. In this blog, we’ll go over one of the main reasons so many people experience back pain, and some strategies we can adopt to help alleviate (at least some) back pain.
One of the Main Offenders of Back Pain
There are a number of behaviors we have adopted societally that we do not even think about that contribute to back pain, but I’m going to address one of the biggest offenders: SITTING. Take a second and reflect on how much time you have spent sitting today. We sit to eat, work, play, travel, watch tv, chat, pretty much everything! I’m sitting as I write this! It seems odd because we are so used to it, but “taking a load off” in the Lay Z Boy is wrecking your back.
Sitting is so bad for your back because it ensures you do not have to use any muscle to keep yourself upright…other than muscle in your back. Your glutes, which should be active to hold you up, aren’t used at all. This causes a lot of imbalances in your lower back and hips which may reduce the range of motion in your hips. As humans, we are designed to “sit” without a chair (known as a squat). Squatting moves your hips, knees, and ankles through a large range of motion. Squatting not only strengthens your entire lower body but keeps your joints from stiffening up. People who have spent most of their lives sitting in a chair instead of squatting haven’t moved their hips through their entire range of motion very often, which leads to tightening of muscle groups around the hips and then leads to back pain.
Many people tend to lean forward while they sit, which puts more pressure squarely in the lower back. Sitting shortens your hip flexor muscles, which in turn pulls your torso forward and (you guessed it) puts more pressure on your back. Think of how your back feels after a full day of traveling. When you initially stand up after arriving at your destination you put your hands on your hips, let out a groan, and lean WAAAAY back because you have an uncomfortable feeling in your lower back. Most people think they are stretching their low back since that is the area experiencing discomfort, but they are naturally stretching their hip flexors since the muscle has been in a shortened state for an extended period of time.
Addressing Back Pain
Having addressed one of the main contributing factors to back pain, you might now be asking what you can do about it. Fortunately, there are some simple remedies that you can do on your own to alleviate back pain. If you come to our classes or have trained with me, I can guarantee you have done some of these, even if you don’t have back pain. (Note: If you have chronic or severe back pain, I suggest you see an expert on the matter.)
I constantly have my classes and my clients sit in a Samson Stretch. All the Samson Stretch entails is sitting into a full lunge with one knee on the floor, squeezing the glute on the side of the knee that’s on the floor, and bringing your hands overhead as you lean back (see Picture A). You want to feel this stretch right at the front of your hip, though you might feel it run down your quad. It’s important not to overdo it, and only lean back as far as it takes to feel a stretch, not to a point where you get a wrenching type of feeling.
I am a big fan of the Samson Stretch as it helped me alleviate a LOT of back pain I was experiencing 4-5 years ago. Once I found someone who could tell me what the actual problem was (tight hip flexors), I sat in the Samson Stretch daily up to 5 times a day. It took some time but finally I started getting some relief. To this day I still sit in the Samson Stretch before I work out daily.
The Pigeon Pose is tough to explain, so I’ll refer you to Pictures B and C at the end of this blog. Essentially you are sitting into a lunge again and then lay one leg down in front of you. After holding this for a few seconds you then lean over the leg that’s in front. This will stretch your glute and IT band on the side of the leg that’s laying down, which can both contribute to back pain.
Yoga is very good for hip flexibility, and having someone to watch you perform the poses will help you figure out how to get into them correctly. At least half of the poses we do in our Yoga classes at No Limit Fitness Studio involve stretching the hips, or a muscle that affects the hips.
When your Coach yells to the class to roll out right after a workout, he or she isn’t doing it just because they like to see you in pain. If you rolled out your IT bands, hamstrings, glutes, and quads EVERY day it wouldn’t hurt so bad! The technical term for rolling out is “self myofascial release”, which is the breaking up of toxins between in the muscle fibers. Basically, you build up a bunch of hardened knots over the course of your life which can make muscles pull on joints incorrectly. This will similarly make blood flow in those areas difficult for your body so healing takes longer. Rolling out helps smooth those knots out to regain flexibility and improve blood flow.
If you have a desk job, it is of utmost importance that you stand up and move around. Sitting for 8-10 straight hours is brutal on your back. Find a reason to get up at least once an hour. Walk to the water cooler, take laps around the office on your breaks, make an extra visit to the restroom, whatever you need to do! When I was working at a desk all day I would stand up in the middle of the day for no reason whatsoever. You may get a few funny looks and some questions, but it’s all in service to your back. Keep it healthy!
I’ll again preface this section with the disclaimer to check with a professional if you have chronic or severe back pain. If your back feels tight, then we’re good to go.
Back pain often comes from your back being weak, you need to make it stronger. One of the most common mistakes people make when they have any back pain is to stop doing EVERYTHING. They tend to sit more than normal, which only contributes to the problem. It’s counter-intuitive, but you should still come to the gym, and you should still lift. Definitely let your coach know before you start a workout that you’re experiencing discomfort so we can adjust your workout for you. We’re more than happy to give you stretches to do before and after the workout too!
A. Samson Stretch
B. Pigeon Pose
C. Pigeon Pose (leaned over leg)