Lower-back pain is practically an epidemic all over the world, affecting 80 percent of the population at some point, and accounting for 25 percent of all workers’ compensation complaints. A combination of sitting for long periods of time, poor lifting techniques, and bad postural habits all contribute to this. Backs “go out” both because of an imbalance between the strength and flexibility of torso and abdominal muscles and also because of tight hip flexors or hamstrings.
To prevent lower-back pain, you need to do the following:
- Strengthen weak muscles.
- Stretch tight ones.
- Maintain good alignment and a vertical torso when you move.
- Avoid leaning forward without supporting the weight of your torso.
- Avoid excessively arching your spine.
- Be sure to use your legs when you lift heavy objects. Avoid rounding forward at the waist and creating a “banana back.”
Even if you do all of the above diligently, lower-back pain may affect you anyway. When it does, your best bet is to move your pelvis gently (“wag” your tailbone side to side, forward and back, and/or in a circle). This warms and helps loosen muscles before you stretch.
HUG KNEES TO CHEST
Lie on your back and pull both knees up to your chest. Hold your arms under the knees, not over (that would put too much pressure on your knee joints). Slowly pull the knees toward your shoulders. This also stretches your buttocks muscles.
ERECTOR SPINE STRETCH
This stretch lengthens the lower-and the middle-back muscles (the erectors run through the entire spine). Lying on your back, hug your knees to your chest, lift the soles of your feet toward the ceiling, grab your feet, and press your knees toward the floor. If you can’t reach your feet, put your elbows inside your thighs and apply gentle pressure down. If you open your legs wide and place your elbows inside your knees, you’ll also get an inner-thigh stretch.
SEATED LOWER-BACK STRETCH
Sit in a chair or on a bench, feet flat on the floor, legs about hip-distance apart. Place your hands on your knees and slowly incline your body forward until your head and upper back hang forward between your legs. (To add an inner-thigh stretch, brace your elbows inside your knees and press your legs open.) Be sure to come up slowly so you don’t get dizzy.
SEATED OR STANDING TWIST
Sit in a chair or on a bench with both feet flat on the floor. Rotate your head and chest to one side, so that at least one hand touches the back of your chair. Keep your feet planted. After you place yourself in this position, take a big breath and, on the exhalation, twist just a bit further. You can also do this standing about one foot in front of a wall (keep your back facing the wall). Place one or both hands on the wall behind you to stabilize your torso-and brace against your hands to twist your spine further. Switch sides.
On your hands and knees, pull your belly button up into your spine and round your spine completely-lower back, shoulders, and neck (let your head drop). Hold. This one’s often paired with its companion – in which you gently arch your back. But it’s the cat (that move with the humped back) that stretches the lower back.
This works nicely right after the cat stretch. On your hands and knees, walk your hands in front of you. Lower your buttocks down to sit on your heels. Let your arms drag along the floor as you sit back to stretch your entire spine. Once you settle onto your heels, bring your hands next to your feet and relax. “Breathe” into your back. Rest your forehead on the floor. Avoid this position if you have knee problems.
PELVIC TILT INTO BRIDGE
Lie down with your feet on the floor, heels directly under your knees, arms overhead to relax your upper back. Lift only your tailbone to the ceiling to stretch your lower back. (Don’t lift the entire spine yet.) Pull in your stomach. To go into a bridge, lift the entire spine except the neck. The bridge isn’t a lower-back stretch (it actually stretches the abdominals and hip flexors), but it is a mobility exercise for the lower back that relieves lower-back pain. This posture lets the fluid in the vertebrae trickle down to the back of the vertebrae (usually, in a slumped seated posture, that fluid falls forward into the discs). When you move into and out of the bridge, move slowly, one vertebra at a time.
ADVANCED STANDING PELVIC TILT
Take a wide stance, feet parallel and slightly wider than hips, with knees bent, the torso inclined forward 45 degrees and hands on knees (a squat position). Bring the tailbone forward to round the lower back. (This is also a good limbering exercise.) Round and arch the lower back a few times before holding the stretch. You can also deepen this stretch by involving the whole spine, from tailbone to shoulders. To stretch each side of your back, “drop” one shoulder to the opposite knee and hold. Avoid this position if your lower back feels strained.
Lie on the ground and do the pelvic tilt into the bridge. Place your hands under your hipbones and keep your elbows on the floor. Lift one leg off the floor, then the other, and fold your knees toward your chest (feet can point up to the ceiling). This will shift your weight onto your lower back. Make sure to keep your centre of gravity in your hips, not your shoulders.
THE FULL SQUAT
Avoid this one if you have bad knees. The full squat isn’t as dangerous as you might think, however. In fact, it can be a very comfortable way to sit or work in your garden. (It’s much safer for your back than bending forward at the waist.) The easiest way to get into a full squat is to hold on to an immovable object (a fixed pole or ballet barre, for instance). With a hip-distance stance, sit your hips back until your buttocks drop below your knees. Lower slowly to avoid knee trauma. (You can also try this with your back to a wall or without holding on to anything). Whatever position you choose, keep the weight on your heels, not on the balls of your feet. This also stretches your quads. Come up slowly.
After a tough ab workout it is a good idea to stretch your lower back muscles. Most people have stiff lower backs, so flexibility exercises are important. Remember, to include lower back stretches in your workouts, especially if you have a job that requires you to sit at a desk for a prolonged period of time.