You’re midway through a workout, things are going well, then, like the monster from Stranger Things, your low back spazzes out and clings onto you, refusing to let go? You roll around on a foam roller, stretch through all the dimensions, even namaste pray to the iron gods but still it won’t give?
Assuming that there isn’t any structural damage or current injury, more often than not, low back pain is due to a mechanical problem. What does that mean? It means a few possible things: often the low back musculature will compensate for a potential strength or positional imbalance or due to a coordination/timing all of which will cause the lumbar area to act as the stabilizer for your pelvis and hips rather than the muscles that are meant to be responsible for that. Let’s think about these two a bit more.
From a strength perspective, it could be that the musculature that aid in supporting a neutral pelvis might be fatigued. What does this look like practically? You start arching your low back to get more push through your quadriceps and hamstrings, your knees start collapsing inwards when you squat because your gluts are getting tired , your abdominals and glutes might start getting lazy which compromises your posture, your hip flexors are super tight and weak from sitting all day, etc. All of it resulting in recruiting your lumbar musculature to help out (if they weren’t already).
In terms of positional imbalance, a lot of times our pelvic structure’s perception of neutral can be way off. You may be in an anterior pelvic tilt where the low back is arched, and the butt is way far out (think Kim K.). Or you may be in posterior pelvic tilt where you lost all of your lumbar extension and your mid/upper back is curved over and your shoulders are rounded forward (think Debby Downer, or that sad guy from your office). This comes down to a posture problem. Though most people, when they read or hear the word posture think they can straighten up and that will make things better, what posture really means is our perception of what a neutral sitting or standing position is. Sometimes this takes an intervention to change, or at least a new thought process, which leads into the third possible issue.
More often than not, though strength and pelvic position problems creep in as side effects, the real issue comes down to muscular timing and coordination. This means that when you learned a movement pattern, whether it be squatting, deadlifting, lunging, shoulder press, plyometrics, etc, and that same movement started giving you low back pain further down the road, then chances are you learned the movement wrong, or at least learned it in a way that was compromising for the low back or would eventually lead to mechanical overuse. Another scenario: you got injured or in an accident and then tried to relearn exercise movements while your low back was either spazzed out or you hadn’t yet retrained certain muscle groups in isolation that you need for those movements.
That means that instead of recruiting your butt for stability in a squat, you started using your low back to do it, or instead of using your hamstrings as the controller for deadlifts you use, again, the main culprit here, the low back.
What does all this actually mean? It means that in order for you to accomplish the movements or exercises that you want to, you need to either relearn the movement without the lumbar musculature being over involved or you need to isolate certain movements or positions in order to dissociate the low back from them. You need to get the hips and pelvis moving while the low back sits the hell down and chills out.
Below are a set of moves to try out, all of them target at getting the main stabilizers around your hips and pelvis activated while your low back helps out as little as possible. That means throughout each you’re keeping your trunk stabilized using your abdominal or glutes. The low back might mobilize (move) for some of these but should not be the primary muscle group worked.
In terms of the actual exercises, try them all, they can be a great warm-up before your workout or used within the workout to “reset” everything if you feel your low back start to tighten up. Think of them like the spinning top from Inception, they’re there to remind you of what movement reality is and should be without lumbar pain.
Breath work is pivotal for all movements. If you want to learn more about it,click here.
Bridging is great for lumbar mobility and for improving your perception of how your pelvis moves separately from the low back (think thrusting). Here’s 3 variations to try out.
Single Leg Glute Bridge
Mini Band Glute Bridge:
3.)Straight leg raises
An incredibly overlooked one, the straight leg raise, if done right, is super important and effective. It will get your hip flexor tissue mobilized and strengthened all at once, develop pelvic stabilization awareness and general lower extremity control separate from the low back. Be sure to concentrate hard on the going down motion. Use your abdominals to prevent your low back from rocking back and forth or arching too much and go slow, taking about 6-8 seconds on the way down.
Both of the exercises below are to target your gluteus medius, it’s the muscle responsible for keeping your femur (thigh bone) in a neutral position when your legs are moving. That being said, form is important. For the lying down one, be sure that your hips are stacked directly on top of each other. Your leg should only go up a bit before it stops and you feel the side of your butt contract. For the standing one, be sure your knee stays in line with your middle toes and the entire foot is making contact with the ground, your quad and butt should be contracted/activated throughout.