understanding pain and discomfort with exercise

Two Exercises to Help Your Low Back Feel Better

Let’s start here: low-back pain sucks.

Pain, in general, is no fun. Low back pain, specifically, has a consistently-surprising way of impacting so many different movements, positions and aspects of your life. From your ability to take part in activities you enjoy (or simply need to do) to your mood and mental health in general, low back pain can have some pretty wide-ranging impacts. In this post, we’ll discuss the origins of low back pain, along with a couple of exercises you can try to alleviate some discomfort.

Prevention is, obviously, the ideal

Ideally, we would start with prevention–addressing the problem before it even starts. The second best solution is to prevent or minimize future instances of pain. Our typical starting point is to understand why low back pain occurs in the first place.

The truth is that low back pain–like many other forms of chronic pain–is a complex phenomenon. As such, the best we can hope for in a blog post like this one is to aim for a rather general–and perhaps over-simplified–picture of how low back pain becomes a thing.

Origins of Low Back Pain

There are two main components to the low back equation that are worth noting here: position and capacity. (In truth, these two components are inextricably linked, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll start by addressing them individually).

This may come as no surprise, but technique matters.

You’ve probably heard this refrain before: lift with your legs, not your back. As with many things, this is actually a bit more nuanced, but the underlying idea is sound. In general, there are movements and postures that work best if your lower back/lumbar spine is held in a stable position. If the way that you perform the movement results in too much motion in your low back, over time we run the risk of over-stressing the tissues and/or joints there.

To illustrate, let’s talk about a squat. 

In the optimal version of the squat, most of the ‘bending’ motion comes from a combination of your ankles, knees and hips. The biggest players in terms of mobility are the ankles and hips. If they are limited, your body will make up the difference by allowing motion to happen in your low back. Under load, done repeatedly, over time, this can turn into something problematic.

As a general rule, your low back craves stability. (The major joints above and below your lumbar spine–the thoracic spine and your hips–are better suited for mobility). This isn’t to say that your lumbar spine shouldn’t move at all, rather there are times and places where it makes sense for your lower back to move and there are times and places where it’s best held still. There are movements it’s better suited for (like flexion and extension) and movements it’s not ideally suited for (like rotation). In every case, the big key lies in controlling the motion of your low back.

This is where the overlap between position/posture/technique and capacity occurs: in terms of technique, our aim is usually going to be to make sure as little unrestrained motion of the low back occurs as possible. In terms of controlling the position and motion–or lack thereof–of the lower back, this is a function of the strength (or capacity) of those muscles.

A roundabout point: consider a movement we commonly perform in the gym–the deadlift. 

In the gym, we’re able to put your kettlebell on a set of blocks such that we respect your current level of hip mobility. This means we can strengthen in a range of motion that won’t compromise your low back and, over time, strength tends to result in mobility increases and that opens the door to safely adjusting the number of blocks we use for your deadlift. 

In life outside of the gym, circumstances are rarely so controlled. Sometimes, we have to pick up the awkwardly-shaped window AC unit in a way that will make our form somewhat less than “perfect”. 

The key to this movement remaining one that doesn’t injure you or annoy your low back lies in two things: your body’s familiarity with how to engage the right muscles to support your spine and the capacity that will have built up in those muscles over time as a result of the controlled training in the gym. Your ability to ‘get away with’ performing the occasional movement or effort with ‘less than ideal’ mechanics is a function of the strength/capacity.

Two Exercises to Help Your Low Back Feel Better–both now and in the future

The Heel-Bridge Isometric Hold

First, it can be helpful to get certain muscles ‘online’. In this exercise, we have two main opportunities:

  1. There’s the very obvious way that your hamstrings–the muscles on the back of your legs–are brought “online” by the effort. Your hamstrings influence the position of your pelvis, which in turn, influences the position of your low back.
  2. As your hamstrings tilt your pelvis–this is the bit where it feels like the bones on the back of your pelvis (or the waistband of your pants) press into the floor–it becomes easier to combine a long, easy exhalation (breath out) with some deliberate bracing of your core muscles….which supports your low back.

Posterior Hip Capsule Stretch (aka, The Side-Butt Stretch)

Second, let’s get some relief in the stretch that you didn’t know you were waiting for. We often call this one The Side-Butt Stretch, even though the stretch is often felt a little further around the back than that.

All the same, the tissues we’re targeting here have a tendency to end up short and tight. The key to getting them to settle into this position lies in those long, easy exhalations. Your breath is key.

Plus a bonus/tangent: Twerking 101

Sometimes/Often, one piece of the puzzle when it comes to low back pain is mobility–or a lack thereof. This is by no means the most important mobility drill you’ll ever do…but learning to move your pelvis this way is a movement capability that almost everyone can benefit from training.

Give these a try and let us know how it goes!