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March 19, 2016
Coach Caleb’s Corner
Relieve Low Back Stress with these Simple Stretches
Lots of sitting getting you down? Pain in the back when you stand up after a long stretch at your desk? How about nagging back pain while you’re trying to sleep? Perhaps you would like to increase your exercise regimen but every time you do, the stiffness or pain in the back stops your progress before it starts? You are not alone!
“My back just never hurts! My Hip Flexors and Hamstring muscles are so supple and mobile, I feel no pain!” …Said no trainee I’ve ever known….
Unfortunately, it is much more common to hear about stiffness or pain in the low back, and how it can be a big preventative factor that limits our daily activities. Most of us can cope with some intermittent discomfort in the low back. However, circumstances and repetitive activities that involve prolonged periods of sitting will cause muscle asymmetries and can lead to chronic lower back pain. Even if we’re not sitting a lot, but active all the time, we can experience low back discomfort. Since our hamstring muscle groups consist of some very long and strong muscles, we sometimes lean on them pretty hard in our daily activities, and unless we practice some mobility skills we lose the ideal balance between tension and relaxation.
Enter the concept of “Flexible Steel!” This training program is a “greatest hits” collection of dynamic mobility, power stretching and restorative drills to keep our “steel” (aka strength) in harmony with our flexibility. Kati and I had the pleasure of attending a recent instructor certification in the Flexible Steel method, and are enjoying sharing these techniques with our amazing clients and also loving the results in our own training too, of course! So, assuming you don’t have some trauma to the back or hips, or medical restrictions that make this a bad idea, here are a few tools you can use from the Flexible Steel toolbox to address the whole tight hamstrings and hip flexors problem, and banish the back pain!
The iliopsoas (hip flexor) muscle has the strongest pull and compressive effect on our spine. If it is tight, it can compress the spine and the associated discs causing pain. Ouch! Our old familiar friend, the Half Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch can come to the rescue and help alleviate this tension. Most of our trainees do this stretch so often that it’s rare to have a day at Breakthrough that we don’t see it constantly. Here’s a great way to “super charge” the stretch though, which is fun even for experienced stretchers. Get into your standard half kneeling position, using a pad to protect the knees:
Now, put your hands on your glutes!
With some tension in your glutes (easy to identify since your hands are there), keep the abdominal muscles tight and use your hands to gently push your hips forward from behind. You won’t have to go very far to feel an intensified hip flexor stretch down the front of your rear leg! Rock back, relaxing the tension for a moment and repeat for 3-5 slow pulses on each leg.
You can super charge the hip flexor stretch, and also get a great quad (front of thigh) stretch with the assistance of a wall. Simply put the ball of your kneeling foot against a wall, creating an acute angle between your calf and your hamstrings. The closer the knee is to the wall, the more intense the stretch will be.
Walk the lead foot back out into your half kneeling position (usually two steps will get it there), “get tall” in your posture; lining up your ears, shoulders, hips and your downside knee. This should cause a pretty intense quad and hip flexor stretch on your rear leg!
When you have tight hip flexors, it usually follows that you have tight hamstrings too. Tight hip flexors can lead to anterior pelvic tilt. This results in a slight lengthening of the hamstrings but without improving hamstring function. To maintain the proper curvature of the spine, these muscles located in front and behind the pelvis must act and function in a balanced fashion. This balance helps to maintain evenly distributed pressure on the vertebral discs.
For improving hamstring mobility, you can’t go wrong with a good ole’ strap-assisted stretch. Simply loop a belt or stretching strap on the bottom of one foot and lay flat on your back; pulling the strapped foot up to a position that feels a bit “stretchy” with the knee locked out straight. Take a few deep breaths and allow the hamstrings to relax a bit. When it feels comfortable, raise the foot a bit higher to feel that “stretchy” feeling again.
Now, to add some spice to this stretch, instead of just looping the foot, loop your big toe and take some deep breaths; focusing the stretch a bit more with this individual toe attention that’s going on. Carry on looping each toe in succession; taking a few breaths to enjoy the stretch on each one. If the pinky and the second to last toe don’t want to be on their own, just loop them together as one.
Longer, looser and stronger muscles allow us to extend and flex the legs without changing the angle of the spine. Short, tight and weak muscles create tension and fatigue on the lumbar spine and pelvis. The relationship between low back health and happy hip function cannot be overstated! The more efficiently we use our hips and legs, the less work we ask our spines to perform. By developing strong and supportive abdominal and back muscles along with with mobile and functional hips and hamstrings, we keep our backs pain free and our training balanced! Now I’ve been sitting too long to type this, and you’ve been sitting too long reading it, so lets all get up and mobilize our happy hips and hamstrings!