Many people struggle to exercise without upsetting their back.
Often this is because the back itself is tight but it will rarely be alone in that tension and can’t really be addressed independently without considering its neighbors.
So the low back is tight and sore. Lets briefly go through the other structures that may be in poor condition as well. (Based on the most common difficulties that I have come across in my clients for both training and massage).
Your abs are probably week, as well as your glutes (bum) and hamstrings(back of thigh), as a result the back muscle have taken on the sole responsibility of holding you up.
Typically hip flexors are tight (quads too, probably), this pulls the pelvis forward, curving the low back resulting in the muscles on the lower back to maintain a permanently shortened position. The weak abs, glutes and hamstrings allow this happen instead of contributing their own support. The additional curve of the back puts pressure on the disks between your vertebrae offering plenty of further complication there and with your sciatic nerve.
Then your shoulders and upper back may not be in ideal condition. For the most part we typically let our shoulders sit forward which leads to the upper back curving forward and in turn the neck curves back.
This results in all the muscles of the upper back and neck becoming problematic and sore/painful, the most common issues being with the lower traps(between the shoulder blades) and the levator scapulae(lev scap for short) which connects the top of the shoulder blade to the neck. The lev scap is by far the most common muscle to have issue with and I have never had a client who hasn’t had a poorly conditioned lev scap. The larger muscle the across the top of the shoulders(upper traps) is also often very tight and the deeper muscles the scalenes (connecting neck to the top of the ribs) and the even deeper muscles along the back of the spine become very tight and short.
At the same time as this the pecs (chest) will become short and tight stopping the shoulder blades from going back effectively when we start tying to improve the situation, and on top of that for many people the whole rib cage and upper back and become stiffened in the excessive curve(kyphosis) further encouraging the poor condition of the muscles.
So we will all be at some stage between moving well and the above state.
A lot of the movement dysfunction that leads to the above condition gets set up in teenage. Just think of the slouch you might have had especially if you were tall or if you played lots of computer games.
this is then compounded by working in a chair through school all the way up to the office desk. Even if you have a job outside the office you’ll still have plenty time sat in vehicles or chilling out on the sofa or sitting at a table.
All of these will contribute to tight hips and the extra curve in the back.
Fortunately there is a lot we can do to improve this situation and get the body functioning a lot better.
Here’s some of the exercises I use for myself and with my clients to help improve the mobility of the spine and pelvis.
Starting all fours, as above, the aim of this exercise is to arch the spine from one end of the range of motion to another.
The cat has the head up, the chest reaching for the floor and the tailbone lifting up.
The camel has the head down, the back pushing up to the ceiling with the tailbone getting tucked between your legs.
You need to make a conscious effort to rotate the pelvis; you can squeeze your glutes and pull your belly button in to help with this.
Moving between the two positions should be done fairly slowly and gently.
You can work with a comfortable breathing rate, exhaling as you arch up and inhaling as you raise your head.
I use this movement in my consultations as it is really telling for the condition of the low back as the flexibility/co-ordination of the hips and shoulders.
Very tight people won’t be able to reverse the curve of the low back.
Quadruped spine rotations
Working from the same position as the cat camel, bring one hand onto the small of the back and rotate to look up. As you do try to avoid letting your shoulder blade ride up onto your neck.
You can think of pulling the shoulders into the middle of your back and push your chest forward. This will help avoid raising your shoulders but will also emphasise the key point of twisting and lengthening your upper back.
You can do this with the same pace as the cat camel.
Don’t try and push yourself to far twist until you feel a little bit of a challenge and return. If you push to hard you’ll likely end up creating tension rather than reducing it.
lumbar(low back) lengthening
This is specifically designed to make you low back curve and stretch all the muscles there. Holding your knees pull them towards your chest and keep your ribs on the floor.
If you exhale and pull your belly button into your spine as you pull it will help to get the best out of this exercise.
rock and roll
This is another exercise I use to assess stiffness in people low back and pelvis.
Starting in the seated position grab your knees and roll back onto your ribs, then roll back and forth.
It’ll help to pull you belly button to the spine to encourage the curve in the back.
If you find that you just thump from the pelvis to the ribs rather than rolling along the curved low back it’s a sign that you have a very tight back and probably tight hip flexors as well.
In this case don’t bother with this exercise for now, but you can try it every once in a while to see if you find your low back getting looser and eventually you will be able to roll along the whole length of the back.
All the exercises before this have been dynamic where you’re moving from one position to another. This one is static, once you get into the position you hold it for a while and then switch.
Starting on your back with your arms out to make a cross, lift your feet off the floor and bring you knees above your hips and then put them down to rest on the floor at one side.
An easier version is to keep your feet on the floor and bend your knees to 45 degrees then put them down to the side.
This will rotate your spin stretching muscles all the way from you glutes up into the shoulders and can relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve
Ideally you would be able to keep both shoulders on the floor but where you are stiffer the shoulder on he opposite side you put your legs will lift up.
Don’t worry about this for the time being, its more important that your legs rest on the floor and you allow the shoulder to get lower as you gain flexibility.
If you hold the legs in the air at one side to keep the shoulder down and the muscles you want to stretch will be braced to hold the legs up.
Now begins a bit of strengthening. This is an introductory version of the Glute Bridge.
The key difference is that your hips stay much lower here and you keep you ribs on the floor.
The aim of this exercise is to train the co-ordination of the glutes, hamstring and abs to work together to tuck the tailbone and lengthen the lower back.
If you try to raise to high the tension in the hip flexors will stop the pelvis tipping backwards and the low back will curve in compensation, potentially aggravating your back.
Start laying on the floor with you knees up and your feet on the floor slightly wider than your hips.
Pull you belly button and squeeze your glutes to tuck your tailbone (hence the name) and gently raise the pelvis off the floor while keeping the low back down.
As the pelvis raises your low back will curve out the way. You can then try to lift your pelvis higher by gradually lifting your low back of the floor.
Imagine lifting one vertebrae at a time until you’re pretty much just on your ribs.
Then gently lower trying to put one vertebra back down at a time.
You may find that your quads or hip flexors stretch as you get higher up.
If you work up to that point and hold the stretch for a moment and then go back down you’ll be testing a good range of motion and re educating the muscle to have a more effective relationship with the hip flexors lengthening as the glutes tuck the tail.
This are the two entry level abs exercises I give to clients who have difficulty training their abs without upsetting the back.
Through out these exercises you low back stays on the floor and you abs are constantly flexed.
With the ankle taps, you alternately tap each ankle with your whole rib cage moving side to side.
For the knee taps its the same idea but touching opposite knees. The movement of the ribcage tends to be smaller but will involve a little more rotation in the upper back rather than moving side to side.
I would often do these exercises back to back.
20-30 ankle taps
then 20-30 knee taps
and repeat three for 3 sets.
I find it also makes a good circuit to do 10-20 tailbone tuck to make the above a three exercise circuit.
How to use to the above.
When training clients with back concerns I typically get them to go through these exercises directly after there warm up.
I often use the cross trainer to warm people up in the gym but if you are at home you can warm up with the joint mobilisation techniques in a previous post.
I also advise people to build a habit of doing exercise like this through out the day, an ideal time to do exercises aimed for loosening up is first thing in the morning to help get your body ready for the day and make you more conscious of how your body is feeling.
The exercises above would be complimenting really well with the neck warm up and stretches I have uploaded previously.
By making a habit of doing maintenance exercises and stretches you will be able to reduce the likelihood of having back issues as.