5 Exercises to Prevent and Alleviate Low Back Pain
The average person will deal with low back pain at some point in their life. You may not be able to avoid every cause of it, but there are many things you can do to prevent it, including these exercises.
If you experience any low back pain it is a good idea to take a daily lifestyle audit and see if there are areas of your life that maybe contributing to your condition. This audit should include, but not be limited to the following: Are you overweight, do you exercise, do you stretch or mobilize, do you play sports, how long do you sleep, how well do you sleep, do you sit at a desk for a long time, etc.
As you can see the list is endless, however getting a general understanding of a few causes will help direct your plan of action down the road to recovery.
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I, myself, had a dull, lower back ache about four years ago that was there daily and though the pain intensity often changed it was constantly there. Years of training, competitive sports, sitting in school and not mobilizing enough caught up to me and it was not until I seriously addressed the issues and added more mobility and stretching into my training did I get free from the back pain.
In this article I am going to give you some exercises that you can add into your programs which help address low back pain. From my experience with myself and the people I have trained, most low back pain is due to tight hips and back muscles through training or being in postures too long that tighten it up. Please keep in mind this will not work for every case and will not work for people with acute back pain due to traumatic injuries or people with spine issues like herniated discs. If you have back pain that does not go away or intensifies please see a doctor.
Here are 5 Exercises to Help Prevent and Alleviate Low Back Pain
#1: Pelvic Tilts
Proper mobilization of the hips is crucial for low back health. When we sit a lot, lift weight or perform certain sport activities we tend to stabilize our bodies and this can fix the hips into a locked or limited range of motion (ROM). The muscles surrounding the hips tighten up to limit the ROM and can create some low back tightness. Mobilizing your hips daily can help you out and also get you ready for your training.
The hip flexors are the group of muscles that allow you to bend at the waist and lift your knees. When these muscles are tightened from prolonged periods of sitting or repetitious sports movements the hips are pulled downward and causes the lower back to arch, aka hyper-lordosis or anterior pelvic tilt. This misalignment is common and a big culprit of low back pain.
There are many ways to mobilize your hips to avoid tightening. Basically you want to get your hips moving and a good place to start is with some pelvic tilts. These can be done standing, kneeling or lying on the floor.
When performing a standing pelvic tilt, your feet should be at your normal standing position with your feet underneath your hips to keep you stable. For the kneeling pelvic tilt have your knees just outside your body and for the lying variation have your knees bent with your feet just outside your body with about 1-1.5 shoe lengths away from your hips.
To perform the pelvic tilt; get stable and draw the belly button inward pulling the top of the pelvis back and then go the opposite direction focusing on the hip forward and backward rotation.
#2: Femur Medial and Lateral Rotation
The upper leg is part of that tenuous hip complex and the more they are glued into place the more motion is restricted causing movement and gait pattern compensations which can manifest into pain especially those of the low back variety.
Getting your leg to rotate properly allows for much more freedom of movement not only from the joint itself but from the muscles surrounding them. Now your glutes and hamstrings can actually be useful to move the hips through flexion and extension rather than being locked into place.
Rotating the hips is not necessarily difficult to learn compared to performance, especially if you have limited rotation in a certain direction. It is also possible to have one side that is a bit more mobile that the other. As a general rule I like to have the sides as balanced as possible which can be a task especially if you participate in sports that utilize one side more than the other.
When starting to work on the rotation make the movements as comfortable as possible and remember we do not want to add to the back tightness you already have. Prop your foot on a step and rotate the foot in towards the body (medial rotation) and outward (lateral rotation).
When this is not a challenge you can do the seated version dropping you hips side to side and then get more advanced with the frog and standing hip rotations.
#3: Hip Bridging
Though this exercise may seem remedial or even Physical Therapyish (yes that is a word I made up) I have found it to be essential to proper back health.
Bridging on your back puts your body in a relatively stable position with two points of contact during the movement with the shoulders and feet on the ground. I like to start with the two footed version and see if a client can do them properly. What we are looking for is glute activation, high hip height and hip stability. If you can’t accomplish any of these, do not worry you now have a goal. Remember when bridging do not solely think about lifting the hips, rather think about squeezing the glutes and pressing the heels into the floor for proper glute activation leading to hip extension.
When those get easy try a single leg variation by straightening the non-working leg keeping the proper level hip alignment and when those are not a challenge try the Figure-4 single leg variation which opens up the hip through abduction making it much harder to complete a proper bridge especially when sides are not equal in stabilization.
#4: Messing Around with the Squat
If you are squatting with weight on a bar or even of the kettlebell goblet variety it might be best to take a step back if you are experiencing back pain; chances are that your squat range of motion is not stellar and it would be in your best interest to clean that up first.
I truly believe that people with healthy backs are able to perform a full bodyweight squat and can hang out in the bottom position for a spell. Remember we are taking about people with back pains due to tight joints and muscles not those with substantial injuries like bulging discs or arthritic joints.
If you can’t full squat without toppling over start with an assisted squat using a post or a suspension trainer like the TRX. Ideally we want to be in the full squat position where the weight is evenly distributed through our feet; in the beginning you might be more on the toes, and have your chest up. An often overlooked attribute to squat success is having appropriate ankle flexibility to maintain your balance and the proper position at the bottom.
Once you have gained more mobility in your ankles, not only will your squat be better, it will take pressure off the muscles of the hip that are working overtime to aide in this position. Ideally, the full squat is a resting position where you actually give your muscles and spine a break from carrying you around all day long.
Once you can maintain your balance and keep the chest up it is time to shift your weight around while in the bottom position which helps open up the hips and works on ankle mobility and stability. While you shift always maintain full foot contact with the ground. I find circles to be the easiest to start with beginning with small circumferences and gradually increase in size. You can also shift back and forth and side to side. These mobility exercises can also be done in the supported squat position.
If you are up for the challenge start adding some rotation of the hip joint by dropping one knee to the floor and then reversing the direction and lifting the middle of your foot while brining your knee away from your body. This is much more advanced and you might even find that one side moves a whole lot smoother than the other. Ease into this exercise; proper form is super important to avoid injury.
#5: Don’t Neglect the Thoracic and the Lats
If we only focus on the muscles and joints surrounding our low back area we are only addressing part of the picture and you might not find the relief you are looking for. It is important that we look up the chain as well.
With so much of our daily lives in a seated, rounded back, shoulders forward position from work, driving and as I sit here typing this article for you, we are shortening the anterior muscles of our body and lengthening our posterior muscles which leads to a rounded back position which can also pull the hips into that dreaded anterior pelvic tilt position which can cause low back pain. It is a vicious cycle I tell ya.
When training do not neglect your upper back movements like row variations and pull ups; they should be done frequently in your program. For this post I am going to suggest some static stretching or isometric movements to address the upper back. These can be done at the end of the workout or in-between sets of other movements.
The first is a simple Bar Hang. Hanging from a bar it an underutilized exercise and it should be more common for its many benefits including grip strength, shoulder flexibility, spine decompression and lat stretch; all of which help in facilitating a healthy back. Now if your grip strength is sub-par or your shoulders bark at you when you hang start with a supported hang where you use a small box to support a percentage of your weight and as you get better you can go to the full hang with no support.
The goal during the full hang is to find a release in the spine and the lats where you feel yourself gaining more length through them. This helps to decompress the spine, taking pressure off your jammed up low back and also releases the lats which can be tight from your daily forward posture activities. As you get better with the hang I suggest some isometric contraction and relaxation methods where you tighten the muscles as if you were about to perform a pull up and then relax to get deeper in the hang. This can also be done in the supported position.
Adding shoulder rotations by turning the elbows in and out is also a great way to gain more flexibility in your lats and upper back and leads to more mobility in your shoulders.
The second stretch I recommend is a lateral trunk flexion stretch which works best if you have something to anchor yourself to like a door jam or a rack frame. The nice thing about this stretch is a great lat release one can get and it is also progressive; reaching up higher helps the tighter individuals while walking you arms down lower worked for those who are more advanced.
Position is important; you want to have good alignment when you perform this. At first your torso might be rotated posteriorly so walk your hands upward until you are aligned the best you can be. If you are still rotated that’s your starting point. You can start with a muscles contraction to rotate your torso forward and then relax and repeat.
For those with good alignment I like to focus on the lat release. The lat inserts into your upper arm and if your anterior muscles of the upper body are pulled forward, the upper arms are pulled forward and, guess what, so are your lats. This leads to a rounded posture and it does not help your low back health.
To release the lats set your hands up and think about contracting the lat as if you were moving the upper arm downward towards your hip. After a few seconds of this contraction, relax and reset and do it a few more time before switching sides.
Chances are that this stretch will be different on both sides and one side will need it more. Rotations of the body are not often seen or felt but are very common and these rotations may also cause low back pain by twisting the body and throwing your hips out of alignment to counterbalance your rotation. If you can balance out the sides the best you can, your low back will appreciate it.
Putting it all into the Program
There no magic set or reps when it comes to these exercises for low back pain management. I am a low volume, high frequency kind of guy so I tend to do some of these drills daily.
Perform some of these movements daily doing 1-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions or until you feel like you have gotten the benefit of the drill. You can mix up the drills above or to fit your preference or do a few for a few session or weeks at a time them change them. The best time of when to do them is up to you as I have found several times to be beneficial. I have found upon waking is a good time especially if I am stiff from the day before. You can also perform these as a mobility warm up prior to your workout or even as an intermittent exercise while you are actively resting. The bottom line is to simply do them and find what works best for you.
Check out the video below for more information about what I just covered. Now go out and make it happen.
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In the summer of 2008, I accomplished my lifelong dream by opening: RISE ABOVE PERFORMANCE TRAINING. Mentally and physically pushing my body to the limit has always been a major part of my life. I was a promising high school athlete with dreams of playing college soccer. Unfortunately, I was forced to give it all up due to multiple injuries sustained on the field resulting in a series of complicated surgeries. Unwilling to abandon my dreams entirely, I shifted my focus towards helping others achieve their goals. I thought if I could understand what had happened to me and how to overcome it, I could train other athletes to reach their maximum potential while reducing their risk for injury through proper strength training and conditioning. RiseAboveStrength.com