80% of all Americans report back pain at some point in their lives. I, at the tender age of 20, threw out my own back due to improper mobility and lack of stretching. Since this incident, I have always had some form of nagging back. In recent years, I decided I was going to change all this, and started researching what was causing my back pain.
For a majority of my life, I always focused on my upper body while leaving my lower body out of my physique equation. The whole body is connected and works as one functional unit. If something is out in the kinetic chain, it will manifest a symptom somewhere in the body. My legs were far behind in terms of neural control, muscular strength, and most of all – flexibility. I could not do a proper squat to save my life – not even a body squat. The squat is one of the most fundamental human movements. In fact, in most third world countries, this is the proper way to go to the bathroom (it’s the most efficient way of ‘going’ due to the alignment of pathways and the external force of knees on stomach area).
Humans were not created to sit down for long periods, but modern life has required the vast majority of us to work in a seated position. If you ever observe a small child, they will naturally do a body squat without any resistance. Yet, so many Americans lose this limber ability that is fundamental to human movement. I would venture to bet that if you are experiencing lower back pain, you are also experiencing an inability to do a third world squat. Of course, more serious problems can cause back pain, but I would say that 90% of most back pain is due to inactivity, chair sitting, and poor habitual behaviors.
So what exactly is happening to the body when we sit? Sitting in a chair causes core stabilizer muscles to weaken, the hip flexors to become short and tight, the hamstrings to become tight and inactive, and the gluteal muscles to become weak and inactive.
Over time, inactive muscles will have less neural drive and muscle recruitment. This a bad thing for a functional body. If a muscle becomes inactive, some other muscle is going to take its place – this leads to imbalances. Unrelated to your back, your calf muscles can also become tight – This will all relate back to proper squatting mechanics.
The weakness of your deep abdominals, pelvic floor, and glutes, and tightness in your hip flexors can cause you to have an an anterior pelvic tilt (donald duck syndrome). People who stick their butts out have this condition:
1) Repetitive bending and lifting with improper technique causing muscle tension and injury.
2) Repetitive sitting and inactivity causing shortened hip flexors and weak glutes.
3) Repetitive poor posture. (sitting on wallet) (high heels) (slouching)(pelvic tilt)
So now that I bored you with everything you might be doing wrong, it is time for some solutions.
Let’s first try to be preventative.
-If you work at a desk job or a job where you sit constantly – Take at least one break an hour to just walk around, do a little dance, or some light stretching. Any type of movement will be fine as long as it breaks your inactivity and allows overstressed muscles time to relax themselves. Multiplanar lunges or body squats are great exercises to perform for this. Also make sure you are doing hip flexor stretches:
-If you have a manual labor job, try to take mini breaks to help elongate and relax over used muscles. Pay attention to your body and always lift with the legs (squat) instead of putting all the load on the lower back. It was not made to handle such loads. Also, tighten your abs and glutes slightly to help support and protect the spine during such movements.
-If you have poor posture, start being aware when you are compromising perfect posture. Over time, you will start to catch yourself when you are deviating from your balanced spine. You may also notice that sitting can also cause the shoulders to round forward, a position that can cause neck pain. Just also try to be aware of when your body is doing this and bring those shoulders to a more neutral position.
How to Put Your Spine in Proper Alignment
Here’s how to easily make sure your spine is aligned in correct posture. This is Kelly Starrett’s bracing sequence from “Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance” I highly recommend reading it. Stand-up straight with your legs shoulder width apart:
1) Squeeze your butt as hard as you can – This puts your pelvis into the correct angle.
2) Pull your ribcage down so that it is in line with your pelvis
3) With butt still tight and ribcage aligned, take a breath and as you exhale draw your navel in (think about lifting your pelvic floor) and now your abs are locking in the correct spinal position. Your glutes SET the correct position and your abs HOLD the correct position. For leisure activities think about keeping your abs drawn in at about a 2 out of 10.
4) Set your head in a neutral position and screw your shoulders into a stable position.
If you want further reading on the topic without getting the book, check out this article by Kelly Starrett
1) Stop sitting in a chair as often. Stand, squat, sit on the ground – just remember to move around often so you do not lose mobility. If you do have to sit in a chair, don’t just fall into it. Try to squat in and out of it – activate those glutes! You should be performing squats every day of your life.
2) Foam roll and stretch. Foam roll your quads, hamstrings, calves, IT band, adductors, lats/back, and the bottom of your foot. Refer back to this article on foam rolling if you need a reference.
3) Start trying to perform a third world squat. Most of the imbalances and tightness mentioned earlier will probably make you fall backwards. Immobile hips and ankles are usually the culprit. I have found the best way is to hold onto something in front of you while you preform this move.
First, foam roll the mentioned areas above. Second, do the bracing sequence mentioned above to put your spine in the correct position. Another cue to help you brace is think about doing a kegel – it will automatically activate your pelvic floor. Third, have your feet straight to slightly turned out and about shoulder width apart.
Screw your feet into the ground to create stable torque in your hip. Making sure all the weight is on the middle of your foot (but imagine weight on heels), go down with a neutral spine and load your hips and hamstrings by driving your hamstrings back.
Think about pulling your midsection down between your legs. Channel your inner stripper and think about driving your knees apart. Now that you are here..try to chill for 5-10 minutes and over time try to increase time spent in this position.
Eventually, you should be able to preform this movement without holding onto anything. Anytime you need to get something that is low – squat down. Start trying to find daily activities where you can throw a squat in. Good luck!
Check out my article/video for lower back stretches: Click Here!
And watch my webinar on this very topic HomeFit Webinar on Low Back Pain, Sitting, and Squatting