The lower back is central to everything we do. When we bend down to pick something up, the muscles of the lower back are activated. When we walk up stairs, these same muscles act to stabilize us. Even when we are sitting, the muscles of the lower back are still acting to try to keep the spine aligned.
When the lower back is in pain, everything seems to hurt. This affects the way we move, the way we hold our bodies, the quality of our sleep, and our overall outlook on life. Several studies have found that chronic pain places an unending burden on our mental health. It can contribute to higher levels of depression, addiction, and even suicidality.
Moreover, when we are in pain much of the time, we are less likely to do the very things that make us feel better, like meeting up with friends, going for a walk in the park, going out to dinner, and enjoying a bike ride along the beach. This becomes all the more complicated when sleep quality is impacted, and we can’t get the rest we need to help our backs heal.
However, lower back pain is not a life sentence. While there can be many causes – from herniated disks to disk compression and malalignment of the spine – with a few quick exercises, we heal our back pain. We just have to be consistent.
The pelvic tilt is an exercise that corrects that natural lordotic curve that many of us have in the spine. A lordotic curve is essentially a sway, or hollow, in the lower back that forces the vertebrae forward and places a pull on the muscles of the lower back. When this occurs, those muscles are under constant strain and become tender and painful.
To reduce the strain on the muscles and realign the spine, we need to correct the lordotic curve. To do this, lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Next, press your lower back against the floor by tightening the lower abdominal muscles. Hold this position for a count of ten while exhaling, release and repeat. Do a set of ten, rest for one minute, then do two more sets of ten.
Doing pelvic tilts daily doesn’t just help to realign the spine and strengthen the lower abdominal muscles, it also provides the neuromuscular memory of what is known as a neutral spine. A neutral spine is one that is not curved lordotically (forward) or posteriorly (backward), but instead holds an aligned position that does not place strain on the muscles of the lower back. By practicing this position daily, you become much more aware of how your spine should feel all the time, and also much more likely to have correct alignment throughout the day.
Like pelvic tilts, hip bridges act to help correct a lordotic curve and realign the spine. Instead of using the lower abdominal muscles to accomplish this, hip bridges activate the gluteal muscles. When the gluteal muscles fire, they pull the pelvis backward, straightening the lordotic curve. Moreover, the gluteal muscles also act to stabilize us when walking and when these muscles are stronger, there is less strain on the muscles of the lower back.
Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor in the same position as you would for a pelvic tilt. Next, push your feet against the floor lifting your hips off the ground. Raise your hips as high as possible. Hold this position for ten seconds while exhaling, lower your hips back to the floor, and repeat. Do ten repetitions, rest, and then do two more sets of ten. If you feel any pain in your lower back, simply do not raise your hips as high and stop before pain occurs.
Like pelvic tilts, hip bridges help to correct the lordotic curve but also strengthen the gluteal muscles that stabilize the hips. As it is common for many of us to have an imbalance in the gluteal muscles, where one leg is stronger than the other, hip bridges help correct this imbalance and stabilize the pelvis. When the pelvic is more stable, we are less likely to experience muscle strain on one side or the other which can contribute to lower back pain. We also carry ourselves much straighter while standing and walking – both of which ease lower back pain.
Plie squats are an exercise that, like the first two, encourage vertebral alignment, but also anterior and posterior balance. Posterior and anterior balance is determined by drawing an imaginary line from our ear through the shoulder, hip, and heel. When a larger portion of our body is in front of this line, we are tilted anteriorly, and more pressure is placed on the lower back – especially when we already have a lordotic curve.
Conversely, when more of our body falls behind the line, we are tilted posteriorly and strain is placed on the lower back, again because the spine is misaligned. When we can correct this imbalance and assume a neutral spine, we can relieve the strain on the muscles of the lower back, and move in a way that is much more anatomically correct.
To do a plie squat, begin by placing your feet pointing outward at a 45-degree angle approximately two and half to three feet apart. When in this position, your feet should be wider than your hips, but not so wide that you cannot keep your feet flat on the floor. Next, with your hands on your hips, keep your back straight and your head up (it is helpful to pick a point to keep your eyes focused on), bend your knees until your hips are level with them and your thighs are parallel to the ground. Hold yourself in this position for ten seconds while exhaling, then lower your hips back to the floor. Do ten repetitions, rest and do two more sets of ten.
Again, if you feel any pain in this position, simply raise your hips up until the pain is relieved and do not lower yourself past this position. Plie squats help to promote correct anterior and posterior balance because to do them without falling forward or backward, a neutral spine must be maintained. This exercise also activates the gluteal muscles, which we know stabilize the spine, as well as the quadricep muscles, which help us to balance when standing and walking.
When we can maintain a neutral spine, correct anterior and posterior balance, and level hips, the lower back does not have to work overtime to stabilize our spine and hold our balance, and most importantly, lower back pain does not become a part of our daily lives.
This guest post was graciously provided by Farlyn Lucas