Did you know that chronic lower back pain is one of the top causes of disability in North America? Let's get to the bottom of what is causing it and how we can overcome it.
We lift without squatting, we, as a culture are carrying more weight than ever before, we sit more than ever before, we may favor sleeping on one side, or carry on one side, new mom's - do you favor one hip to carry your little one on more than the other? Ladies, who loves high heels? All of these things can wreak havoc on the lower back.
Probably the biggest reason (in my opinion) for lower back pain? Weak muscles! We often function with little to no inner thigh, gluteal, or lower abdominal engagement in our daily lives.
Have you ever heard a trainer say 'make the mind-muscle connection' or 'engage the muscle'? It's easy to think that we are recruiting the muscle, but are we REALLY engaging? Making this connection is so absolutely key in actually making resistance training effective and in being able to FEEL and engage those muscles in our every day lives. I see people doing squats and deadlifts where they drop into the exercise but clearly aren't actually engaging the muscles that they are trying to work. So what happens when we aren't firing or engaging the muscles that are supposed to be recruited for an exercise? Well, something else takes over and often times it's the lower back that ends up taking a lot of the pressure. Resistance training is to designed to strengthen the muscles to support the skeletal system, not to put extra pressure on it.
I can speak to this issue first hand because my lower back used to really bother me and today I'm so grateful to be free of lower back pain. When I was in pain, I blamed being pregnant, then carrying the kids and all of their gear around. Carrying kids (both inside and out) definitely contributed to the back pain but it wasn't only the extra weight that I was carting around but rather my lack of conciseness about engaging my large muscle groups to help to take the pressure off of my back, it takes constant FOCUS. Lower back injuries are one of the most common injuries and a source of serious pain and discomfort for so many. Lower back pain is so preventable through getting in touch with our bodies, feeling, and understanding our musculature. I'm going to share how to ensure that your muscles are engaged to help keep your lower back strong and pain free.
We're going to start with strengthening the gluteal muscles. Back in the day when I did a lot of cardio exercise with only a little resistance training thrown in, my gluteal muscles (the three large muscles of the buttocks that move the thigh) were weak. So not only did I have a flatter rear view than I do today but my gluteal muscles were weak and with all of the running that I did, I was very quadricep dominant (the muscles of the front of the thigh). When It came to squatting, I THOUGHT that I was using my gluteal muscles and hamstrings but that was not the case (or at least not so much!). So how did I fix it?
Gluteal Muscle Strengthening:
Using warm up movements to get the muscles firing: Side leg swings, body weighted squats, glute bridges while really flexing through the feet to take some time to feel the gluteal muscles getting warmed up.
Incorporate large compound lower body movements into your training: Incorporate squats (split squats, box squats, pause squats, etc), deadlifts, glute bridges, hip thrusts and kettle bell swings into your workouts with good form. These are some of my absolute favorite movements for building up the gluteal muscles. If you are unsure of form on these movements there are lots of online video tutorials or you can book some time with a reputable trainer. As always, do some research to know that you are learning from someone who knows their stuff!
Form before weight: There is this sweet spot with the right weight where you can feel the muscles working without feeling like you're letting the form go. Checking our egos at the door and realizing that lifting a little less weight with great form and really FEELING the gluteal engagement is so important. Squats can either be hard on your back or can make it stronger, it's all in the form. Sometimes to go the next level with a lift, your form can deteriorate a bit so in order to safely increase you really have to be sure that all of the muscles working are engaged so as not to let your back take the brunt of the work.
Inner thigh and lower abdominal engagement:
Focus on your posture: A lot of us stand with our shoulders slumped forward, and our feet turned out without much thought to engaging the muscles of the inner thigh/hamstrings. If we focus on keeping our feet parallel, engaging our inner thighs (squeezing them in and back), lifting our chest, and rolling our shoulders back, not only will we have better posture, we'll also take that 'shortening' and extra pressure off of our lumbar spine. Ensure that you are engaging those inner thigh muscles. If you don't understand how to do this, a great place to start is by rolling your thighs in and back while squeezing a yoga block between your thighs. Roll your shoulders back, lift your chest, keep your feet parallel all while rolling your inner thighs in and back like you are squeezing something. This creates length in the lower spine. Constant FOCUS gets results, this will not happen over night.
Focussed training: Using exercise bands or ankle weights can help to engage and feel those inner thigh muscles working. Some gyms also have an adduction/abduction machine which are also good movements to add into your routine. You can also use a yoga block or soft ball between your inner thighs to squeeze while doing ab work, this really helps to engage your lower abdominals. Doing those glute bridges with a block or ball between your inner thighs only increases the engagement.
If you are experiencing lower back pain, make it a priority to focus on strengthening the lower body & core muscles, your spine and back health is so worth it. I'd love to hear if these tips help you to build a stronger, pain free back.