The Key to Unlocking Your Lower Back
It’s comfortable to kick back on the couch during these stay-at-home times, but a tight back can hinder your fitness gains. These moves can help.
Since last March, it’s likely you’ve spent more time working from home or just being home—and that means you and your couch have become intimately acquainted. The problem, though, is that your lower back may be taking a hit because of it. Couch time puts major pressure on your spine, says Todd Sinett, D.C., a chiropractor and owner of Tru Whole Care in New York City. “The discs in your spine are fluid-filled cushions that protect the vertebrae and nerves in your back from rubbing together,” he says. “When you sit in a way that makes you hunch over, you put an added strain on those discs, leading to pain and tightness.”
And that can be a problem for your workouts, because a tight lower back restricts your full range of motion for sports like running or basketball, and increases the odds of injury if you lift weights.
Although you may not know it, your back rotates with every stride as you run. This rotation is part of the overall balance that helps to distribute force throughout your body, after it’s first distributed throughout the lower extremity. The rotation allows for the forces of pavement pounding to be more evenly distributed along your spine—but if your back is “locked” or tight, this, in combination with your trunk not rotating as efficiently, means the impact of that force won’t be appropriately distributed. That may lead to even more pain and tightness throughout the spine or lower back, leading to even more restricted movement.
Meanwhile, increasing your back mobility is one of the easiest ways to lengthen your running gait and improve your performance, not to mention boosting your free-throw potential. Unlocking your back allows for better mechanics when you move as well, meaning it takes less effort and therefore you’ll have more energy during endurance activities like running a marathon.
Happily, the best remedy for a tight back is exercise itself. Step one: Counteract the slouchy couch posture by upping your number of extension moves (think arching backwards over a stability ball) during your workout. “This allows the discs in your spine to ‘breathe,’ so to speak,” says Sinett.
Another tip: Take a quick 5-minute walk around the office or the block once or twice during the day to prevent your back from “locking up,” says Karen E. Loesing, a California-based ergonomics expert. (Just make sure to wear comfortable shoes.)
Most importantly, the right stretches can unlock your back and put you on the path to better fitness, says Dawn Fichot, founder of Racked Stretch in New York City. Even a 10-minute stretching break can make a difference when it comes to lower back pain. Try one (or all) of these easy moves, recommended by Fichot and Alicia Archer, an NYC-based strength and flexibility specialist, to keep your back in the game.
Seated Figure 4
What it does: Opens up hips, glutes and lower back
How to do it: Sit in a sturdy chair with feet firmly planted on the ground and spine straight. Bend right knee out to the side and place right ankle on top of your left thigh, just above the knee. Keeping your back straight, slowly lean forward. Pause for a moment and then sit back up. Repeat six times and switch sides.
Standing L Stretch
What it does: Loosens upper and lower spine
How to do it: Stand facing a table, about three feet away. Keeping your legs straight, bend at the hips so that your torso is parallel to the floor, arms outstretched and resting on table surface, lower back flat. Intensify the stretch by peddling through the feet, arching and rounding your back and twisting your torso right and left. Drop your head and shake it gently to relieve neck tension.
Upper Back Stabilizer
What it does: Opens up chest and strengthens upper back
How to do it: Sit tall in a chair and roll shoulders up toward ears, back behind you, then down toward the floor. Squeezing upper arms to rib cage, bend your elbows so forearms are parallel to the floor in front of you, palms facing up. Pivot your forearms so that your thumbs are moving toward the back of the room. When you reach your end range, return to the start. Repeat six times.
Standing Hip Circles
What it does: Loosens hip flexors, lower back and quadratus lumborum (deepest abdominal muscle that stabilizes your pelvis)
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart, a slight bend in knees and hands on hips. Circle hips clockwise for eight reps, then counterclockwise for another eight reps.
Arch and Curl
What it does: Stretches shoulders, chest and spine
How to do it: Start seated, with fingers interlaced in front of you. Lift arms overhead, arching your back as you breathe in. On your exhale, pull your chin to chest while pushing arms as far in front of you as possible, forming a C-curve with your upper back. This is one rep. Do five reps total.
What it does: Increases shoulder, hip and spine mobility
How to do it: Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Place left hand on hip. Extend right arm overhead as you lean to the left. Return to start and repeat on opposite side. Do five reps per side.