By Robert Maxwell
Earlier this winter, I ended a long stint of office work with three days of cutting brush in my father’s pasture fields. Turns out, going from typing and clicking in a cushioned chair to bending over with a heavy old Johnsered chainsaw for 25 hours or so was too sudden a change for my body, because my low back started hurting every time I bent over. Lifting weights should have been out of the question, but I stupidly convinced myself I was just stiff, and training would help loosen me up. I was wrong. One deadlift session later, the back pain was worse, and feeling like it’d be around for a while. It hurt when I got out of bed. It hurt when I sat down and stood up. It hurt when I bent to put on my pants and socks. It hurt when I washed my feet in the shower. I tried several reduced training sessions before realizing I needed to take a difficult step and stop training entirely for a while. With sports related injury, the first and for me, most difficult rule of recovery is stopping all activities that inflame the area until you’ve healed. I ignored this rule at first with my back. My deep need to train made me believe the pain wasn’t serious, and I could work around it. When I finally accepted I was wrong, I’d probably added weeks to my recovery time, thanks to botched training sessions that never should have happened. Basically, I'd turned a one-time injury into chronic pain. When I finally accepted that I needed some time off from lifting, I made myself a promise. I wouldn’t just sit on the couch waiting for recovery to happen. I saw this as the lazy, non-athlete’s approach. I wanted to recover as quickly and effectively as possible, reclaiming my body’s ability to lift hundreds of pounds, and compete as a powerlifter. This determination lead to dozens of hours of research, conversations with experts in health and exercise science, and trial and error. Besides rest and time off from lifting, my research led to 5 things which proved so helped that I’ve permanently added them to my daily routine, even though my back pain is now gone. If you’re dealing with chronic low back pain, this list will very likely help you, even if you’re not a lifter.
Named after the fact that you can do it against the arm of a couch, this stretch helps loosen and lengthen tight, short hip flexors. Tightness in this area is often partially responsible for low back pain, and stretching the area can lead to instant relief. Within a day of doing this stretch, my back pain improved. Start by placing a pillow or other soft object against a wall. Then get up against the wall yourself, placing one knee down on the pillow with the attached ankle and foot folded up behind you, pressing against the wall. Bend your other leg at 90 degrees and plant your foot on the floor in front of you. You’ll feel a strong stretch in the hip flexor of the leg against the wall. Hold the position for at least 30 seconds (a full minute is better), then switch sides and repeat.
As you’re hopefully starting to realize, the hips and low back share many important connections. Pain in the low back is often related to tightness and poor mobility somewhere lower. The tactical frog stretch opens the hip abductors and helps prevent them pulling on the low back muscles and causing pain. Get on your hands and knees, then spread you knees apart as wide as you can. Hold the position for a minute, then lift one foot off the floor and rotate your ankle outwards as far as you can while keeping your knees apart. Hold the position for a second, then repeat 5 times with each leg.
While hip stretches are crucial for low back recovery, doing something for the low back itself is just as important. The trick is finding an exercise that works the area enough to fill it with blood, the agent of healing, but is light enough to avoid more damage. Enter the bird dog. This simple movement works and stretches the low back without any flexion or extension of the spine - ideal for injury rehab. Start by getting on your hands and knees with you body straight and horizontal. Lift one arm straight out, parallel with your body and the floor, and do the same with the opposite leg. Hold for a second or two, then switch limbs. As your left arm rises, your right leg should, too, and vice versa.
Glute Wall Stretch
Tight glutes can easily start pulling on the low back, causing tension and pain you didn’t have before, or worsening if you did. This stretch helps. Lie on your back on the floor, placing one foot against a wall so that your knee is bent at roughly 90 degrees. Bend your other leg inwards so the outside of your calf rests against the lower thigh of the leg held against the wall. Take hold of this second leg with both hands - one on your foot and one on your knee, and slowly pull the leg towards your face. Done right, this will produce a massive glute stretch. It will likely feel quite uncomfortable at first - don’t worry. Anytime you stretch a previously unstretched area, it’s going to hurt a bit. Try to hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
Most people sit far too much, and resting on your butt in a chair for hours at a time is one of the biggest reasons for tight, short hip flexors. I earn much of my living at a desk, doing computer work. When I realized the dangers of excessive sitting, and decided to deal with the problem head on, and start standing during work. I put my keyboard and mouse up on a box so they’re the right height to use when standing, and began to readjust to this new style of office work. It was tough at first, but the longer I did it, the easier it got, and the better my back felt.