We all have backs and just about all of them hurt from time to time. There are many reasons for back pain and almost none of those reasons seem to help solve the problem. Back pain can be caused by an injury or a medical condition like scoliosis but most of us have neither and still hurt. Why is this?
Our bodies are designed for regular, daily movement. An idea you may not believe if you wake up everyday with aches and pains around your hips and low back. These are muscles and joints that support almost everything you do everyday. Opening a door may seem like a movement generated by your arms but in reality, your whole body braces against the ground using gravity and friction to transfer the effort of pulling a heavy door open from your feet to your hands and back again.
Your back (and hips) is the super highway of energy transfer in your body and those roads need to be kept up with regular exercise and stretching. But how do we support the strength and mobility of the back and hips when they are already feeling tender? Below are a few simple exercises that just about anyone can do at home to set out on your day with minimal pain and maximum confidence.
If you aren’t doing bird dogs regularly, you should start. Bird Dogs engage the Deep Longitudinal Subsystem which is an impressive way of saying it engages your Glutes and the opposite Latisimus Dorsi. Don’t worry if you don’t know your muscles by name alone - what is important to remember is that your body works in patterns resembling the letter ‘X’. Your left butt cheek works in concert with your right upper back muscles (thats the Lat) every time you walk. Notice how every runner you have ever seen will throw their left leg forward with their right arm and vice versa on the other set of limbs. To say another way, your working leg, the one pushing the ground back behind you, coordinates with your opposing arm’s back musculature to create balanced and steady forward movement.
Bird dogs engage this system without the need for running or even going outside. The movement is a simple two step motion:
While on all fours, reach your right hand out toward the wall in front of you and your left foot out to the wall behind you. Hold in this position for a moment and notice what muscles are working. You are seeking activation in the shoulder and the glutes. Then return to all fours and repeat on the other side.
Unfortunately, in this article, there will be a lot of words outside the usual English we use every day. This next move is for your Quadratus Lumborum. You are likely keenly aware of this muscle as it is the one that most likely is giving you grief when your ‘back hurts’. Without getting too technical, your Quadratus Lumborum (We will take up the use of QL from now on as we discuss) helps you keep your feet planted on uneven ground. If you stand on a gentle slope with one foot lower than the other, your QL is helping your body stay upright despite your footing. The QL is often ignored as most of our daily lives are spent on leveled ground.
For this next exercise you will need a thick book or a yoga block or a step - uneven ground. This is not a balance exercise! You will be standing primarily on one foot but you should absolutely have something to hold onto so you can focus on the work in your QL.
Keeping both legs straight, reach the floating leg toward the floor without leaning forward. Reverse the motion until your floating foot has risen above the standing foot. Repeat ten times slowly before switching to the other side.
This is a perfect time to note the X patterns around your body. After a few reps of this exercise you may notice the muscles in your standing hip will get warm and activated. On the other side, the floating leg side, you should feel the obliques activate. These are the muscles on the side of your tummy that help us rotate and stabilize on uneven ground!
QP QL activations
Spinal rotation can be a bit scary for people afflicted with back pain. It is however an important aspect of the spine and should not be ignored. Most of our body’s movement patterns have a real ‘use it or lose it’ mentality, for better or worse. Let’s make sure we keep as much range of motion and strength as possible. When you rotate your torso to back up in the car or say ‘bless you’ to the person behind you at the supermarket, a large portion of your rotation will likely come from the vertebrae of your low back. This is a good thing. Unlike your upper back your lower back’s mobility is not restricted by ribs an so it is the first bit of your spine to help you look behind yourself.
This next exercise is a combination of the previous two exercises. Using the book or the block you used earlier (not a stair step for this one) you will get on the floor on all fours and support one of your knees on the object of your choice. With both hands on the ground, one leg supported and the other floating above the ground, reach your floating knee toward the ground and allow your spine to gently twist. Then lift that floating leg up so it rises above the supported knee. The goal is not to reach the ground necessarily but instead to find the largest and most comfortable range of motion you can. Keep your thighs parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground so you’re not doing a ‘fire hydrant’ pose.
This move is gently activating and mobilizing the lumbar spine and incorporating the muscles of your transverse abdominus - the muscles of the core that run from your ribs into your pants. They act like a corset, keeping your core strong and stiff throughout a large range of rotational motion. You may also feel this exercise in your hip just like the standing version of this exercise.
If all is going well so far, your back is probably feeling a modicum of relief already but don’t stop there. Our back is a complex overlay of systems that support us through a variety of movements. Utilizing those movements in simple, controlled ways is the best way to prevent injury and improve quality of movement. Our next movement should be approached with maximum caution and is not to be loaded with weight despite what you may see people doing in your local gym.
First, we will try this movement in a standing posture although, it should be noted that this an excellent way to break up the deluge of seated meetings throughout the work day and can be done in a chair at your desk. More on that later. Stand with your chin tucked and your shoulders back and down and your hands by your side. Keep core engaged by pulling the belly button up and in. Not ‘sucking it in’ for pictures. More like ready for a punch in the gut. Now let yourself lean to the right and let the fingers of your right hand down the outside of your leg approaching the knee. Allow your left hand to float up as your right hand travels down. Reverse the motion back to a neutral and upright position and repeat on the same side for ten repetitions before performing the exercise on the other side.
These may also be performed from a seated position although a few considerations should be noted.
In a seated position your glutes and hips may not act as strongly to support the core. For this reason, you should move through a smaller range of motion a little bit slower than the standing version of this exercise. Also take extra special care if you are in a chair that swivels and rolls along the ground. The freedom of movement means less support and potentially increasing your discomfort in the long run. Slow and steady, thoughtful and controlled movements are the foundations of all of these movements.
Core activations -The Plank
Your core is key to almost every movement in your vocabulary and there are many ways to activate and strengthen your core. For now, lets keep it simple and talk about planks.
The plank is the first and last core movement everyone needs to use. Start with your hands and knees on the ground and walk your hands out away from your knees as you extend your hips toward the ground. Do not let your back arch as you do this. Keeping your abs tight means your back should be rounded and your glutes should be squeezed. Try to hold this position for about 20 seconds to start and work your way up to a minute before trying out a more difficult progression.
The next few variations are to make the exercise a little harder in small, incremental steps. Start by moving from your hands to your elbows. Next progression, we are going to get your legs fully extended! Stand on your tippie toes with about ten inches to a foot between each big toe and don’t forget to squeeze your abs and glutes as hard as you can. Each step of the way work up from 30 second rounds up to about a minute or even more!
Don’t forget to have some fun along the way!