How to Fix Chronic Lower Back Tightness/Soreness
By Julianne Russell
Julianne is the yoga instructor at Performance360 and has accumulated 4,500 yoga teaching hours. She holds a 100hr Happy Back Certification with physical therapy focus, is a 200hr E-YT, and has four years experience as the Teacher Training Lead at CorePower Yoga.
Aside from he expertise in the human body, Julianne also has experience under the barbell with all-time deadlift PR of 325#. Her advice here comes from experience in both intense training and thousands of hours of mobility teaching.
There is no person at Performance360 who knows more about the interrelated workings of the human body than Julianne, so listen the hell up.
“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” –Jim Rohn
Chances are, if you lift or do anything physical on a regular basis, you experience some soreness, pain, or discomfort in your low back. On top of that, chances are that you don’t need to experience that and that it has almost nothing to do with your low back itself.
There are some things about the spine and surrounding muscles that are still being discussed and argued through the medical, fitness, and yoga worlds alike, and there are a few major myths out there on how to treat such ailments within the lower back and spine.
Myth #1: Hot/Cold Therapy
The old idea of alternating hot and cold on an injury is just that, old. If you are experiencing inflammation, then adding heat to it (via heating pad, hot water bottle, or getting into a hot bath or hot tub), you are going to increase your inflammation and swelling in the area. If you are experiencing cramping or muscle spasms, cold therapy is going to increase the tension in those muscles. What we experience usually requires one or the other, not both, and always be careful of dry heat when using heat therapy. It can dehydrate the tissues and prevent healing all together.
Myth #2: Do Crunches
Obviously we need to strengthen our abdominal muscles to support the entire spinal column and the muscles that surround it. However, I hate to tell you this, but crunch style movements are not going to help alleviate your back pain. They may actually intensify it as you increase the strength in your Rectus Abdominis (six pack) without the proper counter strength, the low back can’t catch up and hold it’s own, and those muscles will fatigue greatly and quickly. The sort of abdominal strengthening needed to help protect the spine is a bit more in depth than your simple core exercises, and requires more focused attention within the deeper muscles of the abdominal wall (think “do less”), such as the Internal Obliques, and Tranverse Abdominis. This isn’t to say you should ignore the superficial abdominals, but take it further and create an abdominal wall that protects you fully, including the muscles surrounding your lumber spine, which can be done with backbends, twists, planks and balancing yoga postures.
Myth #3: Take Anti-Inflammatories
Plain and simple, I will never condone taking medication to treat back pain unless it’s acute….and no it’s not because I’m a hippy (hopefully you know by now, I’m not). I get it, that little bottle with the sugar coated pills lets you be comfortable for a couple hours, and maybe makes it easier to move throughout your day when you’re feeling really sore or uncomfortable. However, you are only masking the problem and taking the ability to treat it properly off of the table by doing so. You can take care of inflammation with your diet better than with pills. Think of a more alkaline diet, rich with omega-3 fatty acids (when the level of Omega-3 exceeds that of Omega-6, it creates a natural anti-inflammatory response in the body) and green plants.
Myth #4: Yoga Will Heal All
I know, it’s crazy, the yoga instructor telling you this is a myth to help your low back pain. The thing is, there are about ten thousand different yoga teachers, styles, and approaches to the practice, especially here in San Diego and for most the anatomical training is minimal at best. The other truth is, doctors tend to know nothing about these differences and say “do yoga, you’ll feel better” and then you walk into a Bikram, or any other hot yoga class (since that’s all you can find these days) and start twisting, folding, bending backwards, etc, when any or all of those movements may actually worsen your specific issue. Your best bet on this one is to find someone that can give you a more specified direction to move in the yoga realm in order to help you find what you really need. As I stated above, heat can be detrimental to a low back injury or ailment, so forcing yourself into a hot, power class could only make things worse.
So, now that we know what not to do, let’s dive into this.
Often times what we are experiencing within the low back has little to do with the lumbar region on it’s own. More often than not, there is a direct correlation to tightness and tension in the hips and hamstrings, and weakness within the deeper core muscles. We also tend to experience intense lumbar soreness when it’s paired with a tight chest, which usually correlates to the rounded forward look of the shoulders.
Of course, there is always the possibility of bulging or herniated discs, in which case you would need to take the proper actions for such an injury. Most true injuries that occur happen within the lumbosacral area between L4-L5 and L5-S1. These types of injury can be completely avoided with the right kind of approach and awareness.
I think we all know by now, that prolonged sitting gives us low back pain. When you sit, the hip flexors are shortened, so when we stand up they can pull the low spine forward, which creates a fair amount of pain. Then, we go to the gym and put ourselves in that hip flexion over and over again which continues to pull on the low spine.
The foundation of the low back is the hip joints so it’s just necessary to create space, strength, and stability within all areas of the joints. If you take time to work with some simple stretches, you will increase your mobility, awareness, and cut down recovery time if not eliminate chronic soreness altogether.
“Basketball is an endurance sport, and you have to learn to control your breath; that’s the essence of yoga, too. So, I consciously began using yoga techniques in my practice and playing. I think yoga helped reduce the number and severity of injuries I suffered. As preventative medicine, it’s unequaled. “- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
It is crucial to build a very strong core for lifting. It is equally crucial to increase mobility in the spine so the level of stress on it is decreased, and the muscles that support it are strong and protective, working together with the front of the body.
One of the things that yoga does is teach those deep core muscles to work harder for longer periods of time in isometric contraction, while still breathing. Often times while you backbend, twist, or just stand tall, the main focus is still at the center and on the breath. We utilize the strength of our center to support everything else, and once it’s practiced and learned, it becomes second nature and those muscles become involved where they weren’t before (think better form, more load). I can tell you one thing for sure, it makes front squats a hell of a lot easier.
There is also a lot to be gained by working with balancing postures in yoga. Not only do you build a sense of focus, and create a strong foundation with just one point of contact to the ground, but your body also learns to catch itself safely when losing balance by building stable joint structures. Ever had that feeling in a Split Jerk, or an OH Squat like “oh crap if I lose my balance it’s all over?”
Finding that awareness and focus that comes from balance postures teaches your body to adapt quickly in a situation and correct the issue in a split second. You have a stronger, quicker response from your Central Nervous System, or get you out of the way of the barbell should it come down because you’re aware of your body that much more. Not to mention the fact that with a stronger abdominal wall, your low back is going to support the lift more and keep you from dumping, and you’re less likely to feel your soreness there the next day.
I think it’s accurate to say that every single one of us can relate to chest or shoulder tightness. Even if you’ve spent years developing the muscles in your upper back, chest, and shoulders without much emphasis on creating space, I promise you, if you start now, you will see and feel changes almost instantly, particularly in all overhead lifts, and front rack position.
It’s this simple; your thoracic spine (mid-upper) is connected to your rib cage, along with most of the muscles of the shoulder girdle and chest. The rib cage protects your heart and your lungs. This is exactly why we have less mobility in that region of the spine, and your body basically wants you to strengthen and tighten those muscles up to stay protected.
On the flip side, you begin to pull the upper spine forward, yanking on the low back, which is most likely already being pulled forward by your hip flexors, and we start to mess with the natural curves of the whole spine.
See how everything is connected?
I read once ,“You’re only as young as your spine is flexible”, and it makes perfect sense. If it’s only ever moving in one direction (forward and down), you’re heading straight into the ground! Everyone knows that after doing, oh I don’t know, a workout with 80 reps of bench press and goblet squats, your shoulders and chest are sore the next day, maybe even more like the next hour! Then you have that feeling for anywhere up to several days that you just want to round forward instead of sit up, or stand up straight. Below you’ll find two very simple, and straightforward release techniques that will not only get your chest and shoulders to open up, but also allow your spine to release all the way up through the neck. The more you focus on the breath when opening up the chest, the better shape your lungs will be in to support the breath needed to execute powerful and explosive lifts.
One basic rule I follow and try to hammer home with all my yoga students alike: If it hurts, DON’T DO IT. Sounds exactly like what you hear from the P360 coaches on learning a new exercise?
There’s a fine line between discomfort and pain, and a lot of what you may experience with these stretches and movements is going to be discomfort, but be mindful of the difference! Therein lies a great opportunity to work on your awareness and focus on the breath. When you are uncomfortable, and you can learn to breath and turn off that “fight/flight/freeze” response, your body, your nervous systems, and your mind are going to all calm down, and accept release. You will become stronger this way, you will become more aware, and you will keep your body healthier, and more indestructible through these practices. Sooner than later, you’ll begin to crush all movements with a greater sense of mobility, stability, and focus.
All of the below stretches, stabilizers, and strengtheners will compliment your daily workout, so they should be done daily, spending a few minutes at a time on each one. They can all also easily be done while watching the news, sports, housewives, or whatever you’re into, so they won’t even impeded on your daily routine, you’ll just be getting healthier while you entertain yourself.
Lay on your back with one foot down, cross the other ankle over just above the knee and flex the toes. Stay there or lift the grounded foot and hold on to the shine to intensify the stretch if needed. Head and shoulders should stay on the ground.
Bringing your feet wide on the ground, let both knees drop to the left side and then take the left foot and put it on top of the right knee or thigh. Switch sides.
From a lunge position, place the back knee down and both hands inside of the front foot. Walk the front foot forward until it is beyond the knee. Let the hips drop down and forward to intensify. You can also come down to the forearms.
You don’t need a yoga block, you can use whatever is strong and stable enough to be placed under you and not move, it should be fully supportive. Make sure you place the block in the meaty part of your glutes here and not above. The idea being that your sacrum is fully supported, and the hip flexors and deeper abdominals get to lengthen and release. Breathing is incredible important here.
Sit back on one heel with the toes tucked under (this will keep the hips level and open up the foot) and make sure the extended leg has a flexed foot. When you start to fold forward, do your best to keep your back flat instead of rounding so the stretch stays isolated in the hamstrings.
Lay down on your back and place one foot on the floor. Extend the other leg up and use any kind of strap, or towel to loop over the arch of the foot. Keep the leg straight, keep the arms straight and allow the foot to flex. You can extend the other leg forward for a deeper stretch, or walk your hands up the strap/towel to go deeper but the head and shoulders should be on the ground.
Intra Abdominal Strengthening:
When you squeeze something between your thighs you are automatically triggering deeper abdominal muscles within the pelvis. This provides a ton of stability for the hip girdle and low back. The lower your feet, the harder it is. Lift up through the lower belly and tuck the rib cage down.
Keeping the knees as close to the chest as possible with your tallest spine will engage the entire abdominal wall. Keep your chest lifted and shoulders down to open that space instead of collapsing and rounding the upper back. Balance on the hips and pull your belly in as much as possible.
Lay down and pull your right knee to your chest, draw it across your body toward the left on the floor and extend the right arm out looking to the right if it’s ok for the neck. If not, just look up or toward the left. Switch sides.
The block or support you choose can be placed just above or at the pant line, essentially in the back dimples, so this is just about flexibility rather than strength.
To do the same without the support, you want to keep the glutes as relaxed as possible and instead utilize the inner thighs and low spine to lift. When you engage your glutes, that creates an automatic compression in the low back and sacrum. Without the help of the block, you are also increasing the space you create in your chest with the hands interlaced underneath you and pressing down with the upper arms and shoulders to lift.
To Open the Chest/Shoulders:
Place the block or other support in between the shoulder blades in the upper back. Arms can be overhead or at your sides, and the head should be resting on the ground or a pillow.
Stand in an easy forward fold with the knees as bent as you need. Interlace the hands behind your low back, or grab onto your strap/towel again, and then stretch the arms aver as far as they go without much force. Breath as deeply as you can.
So, there you have it, guys. This is my brain poured out on paper as it pertains to low back soreness and the necessary steps to correct it. Additionally, LISTEN TO YOUR COACHES when they tell you to ease into movements and start any new movement at lighter load. This is what they mean when they tell you to build up your stabilizers and deeper muscles before relying on the primary movers to muscle through everything.
I hope it helps. It’s up to you to make it happen.
Julianne Russell is the yoga instructor at Performance360.