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The Cure for My Lower Back...

September 13, 2010 07:02 AM

This advice does not replace the advice of a physician and medical professionals. If you are experiencing lower back pain (or any pain) you are advised to seek out the appropriate medical professional. The article relays the experiences of one trainer and your results may vary.

Over the past 10 years I have struggled with lower back pain. I am speaking of pain that would keep me on the floor in such intense spasm that I had to go to the emergency room. At first I was sure it was heavy squatting that did it to me, so my reaction (back then) was to go to the leg press instead. Well a few leg press workouts later intense back pain would reoccur. After numerous trips to my chiropractor and massage therapist I would return to my workouts. I thought I had found my solution when I realized that I should probably just do body weight squats and lunges (don't tell Pavel) and planks for awhile instead. First session of body weight exercise set me into such a spasm I was walking as if I had severe scoliosis. This was my first trip to the Emergency room. Now take the above scenario and repeat it for nearly 10 years. Periods of brief relief followed by intense spasm. Working out or not working out and everything from leg workouts to abdominal exercises would set me off. I always felt tight even when I was resting.

Prior to my RKC certification I caught on to a few things when I was teaching a kinesiology and postural assessment class. I began a foam rolling and light stretching routine that seemed to decrease the number of episodes, but didn't make me immune from back issues. Even when I wasn't in spasm I would always feel a hint of annoyance above my left hip and lower back. As I started training for the RKC my back felt better than it ever had. I began to realize that the motion of the swing was bringing some new mobility to my hips and I was feeling some relief. Then about 3 weeks before RKC, after some sprinting drills I went in to the worst episode I have ever had. I went to RKC in tremendous pain and nearly canceled my trip. Glad I didn't, I actually came out feeling better, even after all of the physical exertion. The fact of doing thousands of swings, lying on my stomach during instructions, and the RKC hip flexor stretch were invaluable. Each of these motions do similar things. Each stretches the hip flexors by putting the hips in extension and glutes in a state of contraction. After RKC I had a few more bouts of spasm and reverted back to my tools. The key for me was to now expand upon what I had learned at RKC.

The fact for me was my Hip Flexors, Psoas, and Abductors were in a state of constant contraction, and if they weren't, they wanted to be. Massage therapy helped soothe the pain temporarily, but ended up masking the real problems. The results needed to come with some serious work on my part instead of having others rub my muscles to relax.

When rectus femoris is in a shortened state it pulls the hips forward and takes the posterior back muscles attached to the hip for a ride. The psoas (once thought a hip flexor) also played a role that increased my symptoms. The psoas attach to the inside of femur come up over the top of the hip and attach to all of the the lumbar vertebrae. When the psoas decide to spasm and contract without being asked, they also yank the torso and pull the lower spine forward. The abductors, located on the side of the hip attach to the lateral side of the femur also played a role as well. There are many muscles located in this area and I don't need to list them all off. As Grey Cook would say.. "Is it the glute medius or the Tensor Fascia Latae or the Glute minimus or.....?" the answer... YES!!! I could go on to name 10 other muscles associated with lower back issues. The problem really was poor hip mobility....PERIOD. Poor hip mobility I am certain lead to my lower back pain. Stretching the lower back muscles actually lead to increased pain because stretching the symptom rarely ever works.

The key to defeating lower back issues was to tone back my training, and spend serious time on flexibility. In Relax into Stretch there are numerous tools for stretching the hips, each with a great benefit. In my experience utilizing the PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) techniques was invaluable. In using this technique, you contract a stretched muscle to trick the nervous system into overriding the stretch reflex. To say the least this worked a miracle on my lower back. I have had others assist me in PNF stretching for years, but nothing compared to doing it for myself. It is not my goal to recreate the book in this article, but the following 3 tools were a miracle for my back.
  1. Spinal decompression (hanging from a pull-up bar either way) This helps decompress and prepare the body for the ride ahead.
  2. The chair hip Flexor Quad stretch was the life savor. This stretch is similar to the RKC hip flexor stretch except you place your rear knee on a chair and place your arms on the back of another chair. Keeping both hips square, you contract your hip flexor muscles by driving your thigh in to the chair and practice "contrast breathing" and tightening up your entire body especially the abdominals. When you can't push anymore let your breath out and RELAX, your hip will drop. From the new lower position, drive the knee/thigh into the chair without letting the body pop up and repeat the relaxation. Do this about 2-3 times. I usually hang out in my new low position for about a minute and practice relaxed breathing which will usually allow my hip to drop even more. Another important thing to remember is to keep your torso erect and don't let it fall in to the chair in front of you.

    During my first session with this stretch I contracted my hip flexor by pushing it into the chair and upon relaxation, my hip dropped and I felt a release in my hip that almost scared me. I thought something may have ruptured. I stayed in this position for a bit and I stood up slowly. Something had changed, but I wasn't sure what. I repeated on the other side and stood up. I felt about 2 inches taller! Standing at a whopping 5'7" I was excited. My wife reassured me that wasn't the case. The fact was that by utilizing this stretch I made my body break the cycle of contraction it was used to. Consistent practice of this stretch also trained my nervous system and muscles to understand a new state of being. It isn't enough to do it once. I had years of behavior wrapped up in that hip.

    One other key factor in making this stretch more beneficial than assisted hip flexor stretching off the end of a table, was the ability to keep my abdominal muscles tight - "practicing breathing behind the shield". This also helped stabilize my spine and get a deeper hip extension.
  3. The Reverse Cossack! this stretch hit all of the abductors, obliques, lats, and the quadratus lumborum which are all huge culprits in back pain. This is one of the hardest stretches to explain but the key is to place all the weight on the leg on the ground and keep your front leg with your knee tracking the foot. . When contracting, you are isometrically pushing your lower leg against the ground and practicing the same breathing. High tension followed by complete relaxation.

    I felt the stretch so intensely in my hip, side of the leg and lower back. After about 1 week of practice I could touch my lower leg all the way to the floor. Many times when assessing a client and you notice one hip higher than the other, this stretch can be a life savor. Some clients may struggle with this stretch, due to lack of strength in the shoulder or wrists, so I have them place an elbow on the bench or chair instead, but keep the principles the same making sure the body leans away from the chair. Also supporting the chair up against a wall is important so it won't slip away.
Some of the biggest keys utilizing these stretches in my experience is to be warmed up first and some times I like using the foam roller or "the stick" for a few minutes prior to stretching since it loosens up the fascia a bit.

Right after these stretching sessions I would pick up my Kettlebell and do about 5 sets of swings. The hip pop, the glute contraction, and overall feeling of the swing is great.

I will finish with this… I have spent years trying to stretch stiffness or uncomfortable muscles away. Unfortunately, many times this increased pain or did nothing at all. The reason being is that sometimes there are certain muscles that just don't need to be stretched. The problem is probably coming from a movement or stability issue rather than a flexibility issue. I have studied postural alignment for years but nothing comes close to breaking down the difference of flexibility, stability, or a movement timing issue as the CK-FMS has done. It has really allowed me to see which tools need to be used and more importantly, WHEN they need to be used.
Danny Sawaya been a professional in the Fitness and Nutrition field for over a decade. After earning a B.S. in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Arizona, he conducted research in the Metabolic Monitoring Lab and taught nutritional sciences at the University. He then went to a more hands on approach working with clients as trainer. He has gone on to earn the CSCS Certification and the RKC certification in Russian kettlebell training and the FMS Certification in Functional Movement.
Danny Sawaya, RKC, CSCS, nearly official CK-FMS
Owner Evolution Fitness Systems LLC
4815 E. Speedway Tucson, AZ 85712