T Nation

Low Back Tightness/Discomfort

Hello all.

I have a question for anyone who has had lower back issues. In the past year I have noticed a significant increase in low back tightness or discomfort. This occurs every day, post workout or not. I would not describe it as pain per se, more of a constant tension in my back. It has not negatively affected my lifting, but it is not a picnic either. I have been using techniques from the Mag. Mob. video, but the improvement has been minimal after 3 weeks.

Other points of interest are

more tight early in the morning
more tightness after any sprinting or
hard running
discomfort if I lay on my stomach
My rom and flexibility does need work,
but I haven’t noticed any significant
decrease in tension since committing
to working on these weaknesses
I do use a foam roller 1-2 times a
week, but again no major improvements
after 3 weeks
I had a bulging disc/nerve compression
issue several years back, but the
current discomfort is across my entire
mid/low back, not just the side that
was injured

Any input or ideas on how to combat this problem would be greatly appreciated. I would like to start waking up in the morning feeling fresh and ready to tackle the day.

Thanks in advance
Eric

Stretch out your butt and hamstrings.

bige8

Here are a few points to consider:

How do you sleep? Do you sleep on your back? Your side? Your stomach? If you sleep on your stomach, try changing to on your back with pillow support under your knees. Or on your side with pillows between your knees.

How often are you working out? What types of lifts? Do certain lifts cause more tightness (eg, deadlifts, squats, back extensions etc) than others? How is your form on those lifts requiring neutral spine position?

What type of work do you do? Are you sitting for longs periods? Standing for long periods? If either of these apply to you, try breaking up the static positions as often as possible. If sitting, change posture often. If standing, try using a small stool as a foot rest for one foot.

Continue with your hip mobility regimen. For most people, especially under long standing conditions, this will take some time and dedication. Remember, trying to undo years of abuse will take time.

From your post, you stated that you have increased tightness post sprints/hard runs. This may be an indication of lumbar spine extension used as compensation for lack of hip mobility on your leg turnover (if hip flexors-psoas/rec fem- are adaptively shortened, your body will use your lower back to create the extension moment).

Another area you may want to look in to is hypermobility of the lumbar spine. Excessive movement in your lower back may be causing your facet joints to become irritated. To decrease the hypermobility and regain stability, look at various core stabilization exercises such as plank variations, birddog progressions and abdominal bracing.

Hope that gives you some ideas.
dc

Hi,

Have you done Trigger Point Therapy.

I had very similar symptoms. This power lifter showed me some moves on Trigger Points that had built up on one of my TFL’s.

Worked on it three times a day for about eight days and no more stiffness in the low back region. All the inflamation gone. Never came back.

This was six years ago.

I think it’s worth a try.

Andy.

glute activation

Dra

Thanks for the suggestions.

Here is add’l info

I sleep on my side/back and do use a pillow for support between my legs or under my knees

Core stability is not an issue, after years of heavy squats/deads w/o a belt, my core is adequate. If anything I lack lumbar mobility.

The tightness is much greater after higher rep squats/deads, which is anything above 5 in my case. When doing sets of 10 deads, my back almost feels like it wants to shut down??? Meaning it gets so tight I am unable to flex my low back to make a lift. The feeling is not pain so much as an extreme tightness limiting my ability to bend over.

I am on my feet all day at work, lifting twisting and contorting, but I actually feel much looser after having worked all day. Honestly, after a hard day at work my back feels better than if I had done nothing at all.

I hope this gives you a better idea of the problem. One more note, I dealt with a dose of plantar fascitis about a month ago, after which this back issue worsened in spite of the fascitis relenting.

I am only 30, and in fairly good shape at 5’11" and 225 lbs. So this discomfort and tightness needs to be addressed before age really catches up…if it hasn’t already!

thanks
E

How often are you doing mag mob? It is something you can do twice a day, and it is never a bad idea to do a “short” version - especially when you first get up, and it’s nice to do before bed. One tip: it is better to do something than nothing, do if you can only do cat/camel and then have to leave for work, but you do it consistently, it will benefit you.

Have you tried foam rolling? I am not talking about taking a roller to the spine. You could use tennis balls under the bottoms of your feet and for your calves, an actual roller on the thighs, glutes, adductors, abductors, etc. There’s a good article on it here at T-Nation - feel better for 10 bucks or something of that nature.

Read Neanderthal no More.

[quote]CLewis wrote:

Have you tried foam rolling? I am not talking about taking a roller to the spine. You could use tennis balls under the bottoms of your feet and for your calves, an actual roller on the thighs, glutes, adductors, abductors, etc. There’s a good article on it here at T-Nation - feel better for 10 bucks or something of that nature.
[/quote]

I second the foam rolling. My back is always nice and loose after about 3-5 min on the foam roller. Rolling your glutes and hams would help a lot too.

Pain from a single disc problem can manifest on one side or the other, or both, and move around.

DRA is spot on in his description of what might be casuing your problems.

i myself have had and still sometimes get lower back discomfort but it ALWAYS goes away after i stretch the hip flexors namely the psoas and the rectus femoris using the warrior lunge and variations of it.

check you hip alignment from the side and check to see whether your hips are anteriorly tilted, which will signify tight hip flexors. it will appear like your arse is sticking out with an excessive curve in the small of your back.

thanks for the tips guys

looks like more mm
more foam rolling
and lots of hip flexor stretching

I will report back in a week or so and see how this all helps.

thanks again
e

Hey bige8

“Core stability is not an issue, after years of heavy squats/deads w/o a belt, my core is adequate. If anything I lack lumbar mobility.”

I agree that the above movements will definitely engage the core, but adding specific motor control movements may take you from adequate to above average or better. Exercises such as side planks, birddogs, and bridges will allow you to focus more on your inner and outer abdominal/core units and work them to a higher degree. This will only enhance lumbar segmental stability.

By using the other lifts as your “core” stabilization movements, you may be utilizing compensation mechanics to successfully complete them. For example, tight psoas causing anterior pelvic tilt in the bottom of the squat. To compensate for this, your body may utilize greater extension force from your lumbar spinal erectors to maintain optimal lifting lines of force (to keep balanced centre of gravity). Constant/long term use of these muscles in a capacity that they aren’t designed for would easily lead to the adaptive shortening/tightness.

As was stated in this thread earlier, glute activation is fairly important. This will minimize the extensor torques needed from your back extensors, and increase the available torques from your hip extensors. That’s why lumbar spine stiffness is desired in most cases. The movement should be hip extension vs. back extension. This will minimize any “hitching” from your low back during squats or deads.

Keep us updated on your progress.
dc

This post was flagged by the community and is temporarily hidden.

[quote]bige8 wrote:
thanks for the tips guys

looks like more mm
more foam rolling
and lots of hip flexor stretching

I will report back in a week or so and see how this all helps.

thanks again
e[/quote]

In addition you mentioned working on your feet all day. Look into an othrotic for your shoes. Sure you can spend hundreds on the custom ones. Personally I use Superfeet which REI sells for $35; makes a signficant difference.

I always have low back issues as well. I go to an ART Chiropractor about once a month. He has never once worked directly on my erectors. Its always either glutes or hip flexors. Stretch them both daily along with foam rolling those areas also daily. 10 minutes total daily will make a world of difference.

Elaboration on previous post:

Some of this may come across as technical, but I will try to give real world gym examples so that the compensation movements can be better understood. It is these compensatory movements that end up causing or exacerbating the low back tightness/discomfort.

The lumbar spine works via coupling of functional spinal units. A functional spinal unit being defined as the smallest mechanical unit of the spine and including all structures joining two adjacent vertebrae (ligaments, discs, facets etc). Coupling in the lumbar spine is the combination of the action of the various tissues (muscles etc) to stabilize at each segment.

The lumbar spine is formed of many of these couplings (eg. L1 with L2, L2 with L3…), each working with the other to enhance stiffness and stability. These couplings summate with each other so to speak (to maintain optimal lordosis curve and to resist shear force stresses).

Why is that important? Well, with gross movement patterns such as squats and deadlifts, the larger muscle groups may compensate for deficiencies in the more proprioceptive tissues (eg. lumbar multifidi, rotatores or the like). Essentially, the global mobilizers such as the spinal erectors, which have a primary function of back extension, will take over the stability role from the weak or improperly firing deeper musculature.

So instead of the multifidi being utilized for segmental stability, the more powerful erectors will be called upon to play double duty-gross movement AND segmental stability. The problem with that is those larger muscles don’t have the fine control compared to the smaller, deeper units. They end up tiring out much faster. This is then manifested as that deep, tired or achy feeling, especially with higher repetitions.

Since there is further stability afforded by the “corsetting” action of the abdominal units via the thoracolumbar fascia (as well as increases in intraabdominal pressure), it is important to work on this function as well. The inner and outer core units act much like a brace and help “stiffen” the combination of all those spinal units.

By using neutral spine core exercises such as planks, bridges, birddogs, the compensatory spinal musculature is taken out of the equation to a greater extent. This allows the deeper, proprioceptive tissue to be recruited. These exercises should not necessarily be considered as pure strengthening movements but rather biomechanical retraining movements. When doing them, you are RETRAINING your body to use the deeper musculature for the OPTIMAL purpose: segmental control and stability.

So going back to the tight psoas example: the tight hip flexors will cause anterior pelvic tilt (which in turn causes lengthening/weakening of the abdominals). If the spine acts as discussed above (as a stiff unit), the expected posture would be one with a forward lean. Typically, one doesn’t see that position.

Instead, we tend to see the compensated position, with the lumbar spine extended and excessive lordosis(extensor torques as described earlier). This keeps the body in a more upright position.

Now take that position and put it in to a squat. There is now a load on the spine. The load will typically tend to cause anterior shear (forward bending). The extensors will resist with greater extensor torques. And there should be balance. Gravity helps on the way down and for most, the descent isn’t too bad.

Now here is where the problems become more apparent. In the bottom position of the squat, there is the anteriorly rotated pelvis due to tight hip flexors (weak abs and glutes; tight spinal erectors-Janda’s pelvic crossed syndrome). This causes the weight to shift further forward.

Once again, the compensation is to fire the spinal erectors to balance the anterior shear forces. This is where the lack of segmental control will now start to show. As the individual stands up, movement is initiated at the lumbar spine (due to lack of segmental control) instead of being initiated at the hips (using larger, more powerful muscles such as glutes/hams).

Essentially, the spine is lacking stiffness and the hips are lacking mobility. This is that hitching referred to in the previous post.

The easiest way to address these issues are to increase hip mobility,increase glute activation, increase spinal stiffness with the correct choice of core exercises, and retrain the squat or deadlift pattern. The last one is the toughest. It requires dropping the weight and making a concerted effort to utilize hip movement over lumbar movement to create the extensor moments.

And that is my ramble for tonight. Hope it makes sense.

dc.

dra,

I truly appreciate your input. I started foam rolling my glutes and hams for 10 mins a day, and the results have been promising.

As far as the abdominal work, I probably was being a bit overconfident in my conditioning. So birddogs and side planks are in the regimen. I appreciate the reality check, no one is above improvement, least of all myself.

Concerning hip mobility…what exercises do you reccommend? What about tight hip flexors? I am open for anything, even dropping weight (gasp!) to relearn proper squatting and deadlifting. The last one is going to kill me…I do derive pleasure from a heavy deadlift or squat session…until the next day!

Thanks again
E

[quote]dra wrote:
Elaboration on previous post:

Some of this may come across as technical, but I will try to give real world gym examples so that the compensation movements can be better understood. It is these compensatory movements that end up causing or exacerbating the low back tightness/discomfort.

The lumbar spine works via coupling of functional spinal units. A functional spinal unit being defined as the smallest mechanical unit of the spine and including all structures joining two adjacent vertebrae (ligaments, discs, facets etc). Coupling in the lumbar spine is the combination of the action of the various tissues (muscles etc) to stabilize at each segment.

The lumbar spine is formed of many of these couplings (eg. L1 with L2, L2 with L3…), each working with the other to enhance stiffness and stability. These couplings summate with each other so to speak (to maintain optimal lordosis curve and to resist shear force stresses).

Why is that important? Well, with gross movement patterns such as squats and deadlifts, the larger muscle groups may compensate for deficiencies in the more proprioceptive tissues (eg. lumbar multifidi, rotatores or the like). Essentially, the global mobilizers such as the spinal erectors, which have a primary function of back extension, will take over the stability role from the weak or improperly firing deeper musculature.

So instead of the multifidi being utilized for segmental stability, the more powerful erectors will be called upon to play double duty-gross movement AND segmental stability. The problem with that is those larger muscles don’t have the fine control compared to the smaller, deeper units. They end up tiring out much faster. This is then manifested as that deep, tired or achy feeling, especially with higher repetitions.

Since there is further stability afforded by the “corsetting” action of the abdominal units via the thoracolumbar fascia (as well as increases in intraabdominal pressure), it is important to work on this function as well. The inner and outer core units act much like a brace and help “stiffen” the combination of all those spinal units.

By using neutral spine core exercises such as planks, bridges, birddogs, the compensatory spinal musculature is taken out of the equation to a greater extent. This allows the deeper, proprioceptive tissue to be recruited. These exercises should not necessarily be considered as pure strengthening movements but rather biomechanical retraining movements. When doing them, you are RETRAINING your body to use the deeper musculature for the OPTIMAL purpose: segmental control and stability.

So going back to the tight psoas example: the tight hip flexors will cause anterior pelvic tilt (which in turn causes lengthening/weakening of the abdominals). If the spine acts as discussed above (as a stiff unit), the expected posture would be one with a forward lean. Typically, one doesn’t see that position.

Instead, we tend to see the compensated position, with the lumbar spine extended and excessive lordosis(extensor torques as described earlier). This keeps the body in a more upright position.

Now take that position and put it in to a squat. There is now a load on the spine. The load will typically tend to cause anterior shear (forward bending). The extensors will resist with greater extensor torques. And there should be balance. Gravity helps on the way down and for most, the descent isn’t too bad.

Now here is where the problems become more apparent. In the bottom position of the squat, there is the anteriorly rotated pelvis due to tight hip flexors (weak abs and glutes; tight spinal erectors-Janda’s pelvic crossed syndrome). This causes the weight to shift further forward.

Once again, the compensation is to fire the spinal erectors to balance the anterior shear forces. This is where the lack of segmental control will now start to show. As the individual stands up, movement is initiated at the lumbar spine (due to lack of segmental control) instead of being initiated at the hips (using larger, more powerful muscles such as glutes/hams).

Essentially, the spine is lacking stiffness and the hips are lacking mobility. This is that hitching referred to in the previous post.

The easiest way to address these issues are to increase hip mobility,increase glute activation, increase spinal stiffness with the correct choice of core exercises, and retrain the squat or deadlift pattern. The last one is the toughest. It requires dropping the weight and making a concerted effort to utilize hip movement over lumbar movement to create the extensor moments.

And that is my ramble for tonight. Hope it makes sense.

dc.
[/quote]

dra,
That was a great explanation!
Dr. Tim