Several months after I started work at a large Accounting firm, I woke up to a lower back that was stiffer than my morning wood. Gents, don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about.
Damn it, I thought. Not me, too. In this kind of pain, how am I supposed to lift things up and put them down? How did I go from Superman to Tin Man in less than six months? Is this what I have to put up with for the rest of my life?
Ladies, as much as you might be appalled right now, I’m sure you can relate to the lower back pain. Those high heels will get you. Though, to be fair, you look great in them. Keep doing you. That said, are you interested in doing you without the back pain?
So, how did I go from having lower back pain to painlessly and easily lifting up 200-pound sparring partners in wrestling open mat practices?
We’ll start with the general cause of the lower back pain followed by ways to fix this mess.
Cause: Understanding Posture and Positioning
It’s no secret that your spine is important. Damaging your spine can lead to serious pain. In extreme cases, spine damage will leave you paralyzed. As a result of this, your body adjusts its structure as necessary to maintain a healthy spine. When you slouch for extended periods of time, for example, this could cause your lower back to tighten up in order to maintain a straight spine (generally speaking, a straight spine is the optimal position for the spine). Cue lower back tightness. This also pulls on the muscles in the lower body, which explains tight hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors, for example. To add even more insult to injury, slouching has also been known to lead to negative psychological side effects. It’s really not your fault, though. Most people were not taught how to sit properly despite spending many hours per day in a chair. That’s something we can fix. In this post, we’ll cover how to perform maintenance in a way that is not time consuming or expensive. In fact, it’s free.
The Cure to Lower Back Pain: Fixing the Cause and Treating the Symptoms
First, let’s illustrate an example of fixing the cause of the problem versus treating the symptoms.
I happen to be slightly allergic to dogs (heartbreaking, I know. It’s one of many reasons why I’m single). Let’s say I decide to give my puppy friend Dingus a hug. I neglect to wash my hands and start getting itchy. My nose starts to get runny. Dang. This is no fun. To fix this, I run to CVS and get Cetrizine Hydrochloride (which is the cheaper, store brand version of Zyrtec. You’re welcome). Within minutes, the allergy symptoms go away and now I’m happy again. The other solution and long term fix would have been to stay away from Dingus in the first place or wash my hands before picking my nose or whatever (I’m currently taking recommendations for cute and hypoallergenic dogs). In principle, this is dealing with the cause of the problem as opposed to fixing the problem once it happens. In life, sometimes the problem is unavoidable, so we’ll cover the cure to the cause and also a way of treating the symptoms for you.
Performing maintenance on the lower back consists of two parts. Learning to keep proper positioning and making it a habit to sit that way is the long term cure for lower back pain. The short term fix, stretching, reverses the damage done by sitting in improper position for too long. We’ll start by going over positioning.
Positioning: Preventing the Damage
By learning to sit with proper positioning, your body won’t need to tighten up in certain areas like your lower back in order to keep the spine in the optimal position. This can be used as an immediate fix and also a long-term fix. Within a day of doing this, virtually all of my back pain disappeared. This may take you longer than a day or two but you should be able to at the very least feel more physically stable in the proper sitting position. You also end up with this strange but awesome side effect of feeling like it’s easier to move around. If you enjoy lifting weights, playing sports, or doing other physical activities, expect your performance to increase as you get more consistent with good positioning.
Steps one through four focus on the core and the main area of lower back pain. If you’re hurting in the upper back, shoulder, and neck area, steps five and six will help with that too. Added bonus.
- Stand in front of your chair as if you were about to sit down.
- Squeeze your abs as hard as you can (as if you knew you were about to get punched in the gut).
- At the same time, squeeze your glutes (your “butt muscles”) as if you were about to get punched in the butt. Done together, you’ll notice how steps two and three straighten out your spine.
- Sit down and then dial down the intensity to about 20% effort. You’re no longer squeezing as hard as possible but you’re squeezing hard enough to maintain the position. You should still be able to breathe. Remember to breathe.
- While sitting up straight with the same 20% squeeze, turn your palms upwards as if you were holding an apple. Keeping your elbows to your side, move your wrists so that your arms are turned out at a 45 degree angle. Notice how this aligns your shoulders in a more stable position.
- While keeping your shoulders in the same position, rest your arms on the table in front of you. Type on your keyboard, write in your notebook, eat lunch, or anything else.
- Feel the power.
Every so often, check your positioning. You can do this every 20 to 30 minutes or whenever you’re about to sit back down in your chair. Basically, the sequence is Abs-Glutes-Sit-Shoulders. It may look simple enough but keeping your abs engaged at 20% intensity for hours on end is not easy. Have you ever tweaked your back at the end of a run or workout? That was because of your muscular endurance failing you towards the end of a workout, which led to a loss of proper positioning in your spine, which then led to lower back pain in the form of tight muscles. It’ll improve over time. Like I mentioned earlier, as a trained athlete, I was able to get rid of the lower back pain within a day or two. For some people, it may take longer than that. The freedom to move around without pain is so worth it though.
If you do steps two and three together at a gym, you’ll also notice that you’ll feel stronger. When your core is strong, your body transfers force more effectively. For a while, I couldn’t figure out how or why I felt that much stronger. Strengthening my core like this was apparently the answer I was looking for. It’s worth trying out! 100% contraction during power lifts such as deadlifts, squats, or any other exercise that uses your whole body. Same with short-distance sprints. For longer distance running, a 40% contraction seems to be the gold standard. Ultimately, you want to be able to maintain 20% contraction all day- sitting, standing, and walking around. Still, it’s most important to focus on sitting because that’s potentially when most of the lower back damage could happen. It won’t be easy at first. I had to set a reminder on my phone to go off every 30 minutes so that I could go through the first four steps every now and then.
After some time, you’ll feel much stronger and more physically stable. Another upside is that your abs will definitely get stronger and more toned, so while you’re fixing lower back stiffness, you’ll also be on your way towards chiseled abs. Hidden reps. Be a ninja. Being strong looks good and feels great.
In the next post, we will cover stretches to relieve the lower back pain.
I honestly had no idea I was supposed to flex my butt. Thanks for the tips! Maybe I’ll be able to fix my posture this time… I’m going to keep this page open on a web-browser-tab at work as a reminder.
I know, right?!
This one took me forever to figure out too. I was listening to a movement and body positioning expert and the lightbulb went off in my head.
To be fair, I’m still not fantastic at this. Keeping butt and abs contracted over the course of the day is tough. When I’m up to it, I normally keep a 15 minute timer on my phone to remind myself to check my posture. That, or whenever I get up from my chair, I make sure the positioning is right.
Just wanted to say that your humble tone is very encouraging 🙂
Everyone starts somewhere! I wasn’t born super athletic!