Whether you come to the gym from an office job that has you seated all day, a construction job that carries with it a multitude of aches and pains, it is becoming more and more common that directly behind a body composition goal, or often the largest obstacle is essentially panel beating a broken body.
The most common ailments are knee pain, lower back pain and shoulder injuries. Over the next three weeks we will be working through the common causes, the signs and symptoms, how to fix it, what to stretch, what to strengthen with an added focus on nutrition and recovery.
First up is the biggie- the lower back.
It is estimated that in the western world nine out of ten people will experience serious or chronic back pain in their life compared to four out of ten in the eastern world. Interestingly this comes as no shock, nor is it a coincidence.
When it comes to any joint, or in the case of the lower back a junction of joints there must be a balance between mobility and stability. In regards to the spine Dr Stuart McGill has coined the term “mostability”.
Not only does a healthy spine, or in reference to this article the lower back have stability and tightness through the surrounding muscle tissue but it should also have movement and crucially control through that movement.
Common Causes For Lower Back Pain
As with all joints there is the common risk of acute injury and in the instance of the lower back this can be attributed to lifting all manner of items from a weight in the gym, an old TV or washing machine all the way through to the innocuous tasks such as picking up a pair of socks from the floor.
Although many of the topics discussed in this series will help bullet proof the body to these issues, each article is addressed at corrective exercise and practices geared towards improving joint condition or alleviating pain.
The regular nine to five, corporate office job is perhaps one of the greatest culprits in causing lower back pain.
The simple truth is our bodies just aren’t made to spend long periods of time seated. In this position our core and glute muscles deactivate and weaken over time, our hip flexors are in a shortened position and over an extended period this causes a slight pelvic tilt.
This tilt alone will cause aches or tightness through the lower back and over time that tightness moves up becoming a tight thoracic spine (the region of your spine where your ribs attach).
The next likely perpetrator for lower back pain comes from the gym- lifting with poor technique, or no tightness. At the end of the day we are a strength and conditioning gym with strength training making up a major part of our programming. The unfortunate truth is that regardless of how perfect your technique is when dealing with heavy weights sometimes things do go wrong.
However, there are many tips, techniques and considerations to improve technique that without these in place over time poor lifting technique will result in aches, pains and disfunction.
Repairing the Damage
Depending on the severity of your injury, we use the term “repairing the damage” loosely. For general aches and pains however working on some of the following will go a long way to alleviating pain and discomfort.
First and foremost you need to take some of the tension out of the hips and that is through a combination of three strangely linked techniques.
- Look at your breathing
- Try and avoid what is causing them to tighten
- A combination of stretching, mobility and release work
It sounds outrageous to many that your breathing could play such a large roll in the overall health of your lower back- but without correct breathing your diaphragm isn’t able to function as it should and this compromises the overall integrity of your inner unit core muscles.
In response to this, muscles such as the psoas (a hip flexor) will tighten and often result in what seems like perennially tight hips- a problem in of itself. When this is the case it is very easy to assume that the hips are the problem and so begins the endless cycle of loosening hips that just keep tightening up.
Next time you’re laying on the floor- take one hand on your chest, and one on your belly. Draw in a long deep breathe and take note of which hand moves the most. Typically it will be the one on the chest, however it should be the belly expanding first and the most then the chest lifts and expands at the end.
The next step is to start identifying the activities that aggravate it- chief problem number one- sitting for long, looooonnnnnggggggg periods of time. Again this will further tighten the hips.
Naturally with such a huge percentage of people’s jobs involving sitting at a computer desk most of the day makes it difficult to avoid sitting. In this instance just do what you can- for most people that would be hopping up from time to time and going for a short walk, it can literally be just around the office. Just make the time for some movement.
Finally the release work. There are no two ways around it- to restore lost range of movement takes time, patience and commitment. It must be combined with stability work on the other side to improve the balance of agonist and antagonist muscle groups.
Depending on your starting point long static stretching, trigger release work, massage, dynamic stretching, PNF stretching or a combination of them all will be an essential mix.
Full disclaimer when we refer to “tighten” we aren’t suggesting losing mobility- rather strengthening your stability muscles. The most common when improving back pain the core, the glutes and middle back (the latter two we will go through in detail later- glutes in knees, middle back in shoulders).
Imagine the body as a series of bits and pieces stacked on top of one another, swaying about as you move around. It is the muscle tissue that holds the stack from collapsing- increased strength leads inevitably to increased stability.
Increasing the strength first and foremost throughout the core is incredibly important- at Hybrid we like to start our members off with bracing exercises such as dishes, hollow body holds and plank variations that are easily cued to engage core muscles.
Over time we will build this up to advanced progressions of the hold and then incorporate movement through bracing, often still while laying- whether its in the form of a controlled sit up, or four point stance.
As the client progresses, so to does the complexity and skills in the core exercise until ultimately we have someone who can activate their core laying, sitting, standing and moving. As we always emphasise- we teach the fundamentals first and build layers on from that point to further correct and improve core health and subsequently alleviate lower back pain.
It is important to remember, that just because lower back pain is common- does not mean it is normal. Nor should it be accepted. In the instance of acute injury- often that is unable to be prevented.
For the aches and pains, stiffness and tightness improving the mobility and stability throughout the hips, the core and the thoracic spine is your first step to bullet proofing your lower back- thus allowing an increase in quality of life.