Let me just start this off by saying that I am not a physical therapist, so if you have access to healthcare and need a diagnosis for your back pain, GO DO IT! Seriously. Get off your keister and do something about it instead of suffering. However, if you’re like me, health insurance and doctors can mostly be out of reach except for emergencies, so I’ve taken a lot of time to research and talk to knowledgeable people about reducing back pain and prevent injuries therein. I occasionally have pretty severe back pain and I’ve discovered through help that there’s nothing actually wrong with my spine. All of my pain is due to soft tissue tightness or imbalance. Also my sacroiliac joint slips out of place sometimes on my right side. Ouch. It’s a side effect from pregnancy and birth. Thanks kiddo!
Through several debilitating flare ups with my back over the years I’ve learned what helps me prevent and/or heal flare ups with my SI joint. A lot of clients I’ve had over the years experience back pain, and almost all of them benefited from this approach and reduced their back pain. The ones that kept up with the maintenance of these prevented a good deal of pain in their futures as well. Honestly, injury prevention should be on your mind consistently throughout your workouts. There is no exercise that is worth getting injured over. Injuries require time off and time and energy to heal. Time and energy that you could otherwise be using to progress rather than repair damage.
Deep Tissue Massage
Mobility work is first and foremost. Keeping muscles that push on your hips nice and flexible and working out adhesions is crucial. Adhesions can form in the connective tissue that surrounds muscle fibers and can cause muscle tissue to become bunched up together and tense. Foam rolling, a lacrosse ball, stick, or any other myofascial release technique you prefer is will work. The areas I recommend targeting for lower back pain are glutes, pirformis, IT band, and quads. A good rule of thumb is that if it hurts, that means you have a knot right there and you should sit on that spot for about 30 seconds before moving on. I foam roll before every CrossFit or leg day training session. Most days it can be painful, but if I don’t address the knots, the tension in those muscles can cause compensations elsewhere, which can lead to injury.
I also stretch on workout days. For lower back pain and tightness, the muscles in your hips are actually the ones that usually need to be addressed. Stretches need to be held fro 30-60 seconds. I know that gets boring. (really boring) But there’s a reason why stretches need to be held that long. There are protective mechanisms in your muscle fibers (called Golgi tendon bodies) that keep your muscle from stretching too far too quickly. It takes about 30 seconds to override this mechanism. So even though you feel the stretch right away, it takes at least 30 seconds for the stretch to take effect on the muscle fibers when that Golgi tendon body releases. Stretching hamstrings, pirformis, adductors, hip flexors, and quads all help immensely in reducing lower back tension. My favorite stretch is the couch stretch, because it hits several muscles at once. Ideally we would all take the first 30 minutes of our day stretching and performing some core and hip activating movements, but in reality, there are some days when I’ll get to squeeze in 10 minutes right before I work out or maybe 10 minutes on a weekend. When it comes to back tension, the more often, the better, even it’s only a few minutes.
After mobility is established, it’s important to get your core and hips stable and strong. Core work is obviously crucial for anyone trying to feel better physically. A strong core helps with posture by stabilizing the spine through every movement. I include extensive core work within all of my personal and clientele programming, whether they like it or not. Most people think about crunches and sit-ups when they think of core. However, your core is comprised of many overlapping muscles that go in different directions. Crunches and sit-ups are good at targeting the rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscle), but in terms of functionality, the other core muscles do a lot more for stabilizing your spine through your workouts and daily life. Exercises such as planks, side planks, rotations, and anti-rotation movements, can be very helpful to include in your workouts or warm-ups.
Hip activation before lower body work is very important. Glutes are considered to be part of your core, so buns of steel should be your goal! Glutes and core activation along with other hip stabilizer exercises helps me before an intense workout or running. Glute bridges and hip extensions are my go-to ways to engage and activate glutes before work. Banded squats helps engage other muscles in my hips that keep good knee tracking for me. My knees tend to cave in heavy squats, so it’s something I have to keep in my routine to help fix it.
Correct movement patterns are imperative when it comes to preventing injury for your lower back. whether you’re working out or just going through life, correct movement patterns for squatting, deadlifting, and rotating can greatly reduce the chances of harming your back. Everyone has room for improvement–there are things in every lift that I do that could be improved upon, and that’s part of the journey. Knowing the basics of needing to shift your weight into your heels and keeping your chest up in order to squat or deadlift safely can make the difference between lifting something without pain, or putting your back at risk for injury over time. Living with back pain or tightness is not fun, and it can take a little extra time to take care of in order to live life fully and while minimizing pain, but life is worth it, right?
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