05 Aug Low Back Tightness Causes, Routines, and Fixes
Dealing with low back tightness? You’re not alone, did you know that low back issues are the most common musculoskeletal complaint and one of the top reasons for time lost at work? However, don’t be too alarmed, another way to look at it is low back pain and tightness is like the common cold of the musculoskeletal system. Just like the common cold, there can be a lot of reasons and contributing factors that make low back issues come around. The best way to manage low back tightness is to treat it comprehensively. In this article, you will learn different methods that you can start applying immediately to give you low back relief, as well as a follow-along 5-minute routine that we promise you will make your back feel like a million bucks!
Low Back Tightness Mobility Routine
The goal of this mobility routine is to introduce gentle motions into your low back to get you prepared to tackle the day. There may be some points during the exercise that you feel your back stiffness – that is normal! The goal is to work through that stiffness in a nice and controlled fashion, introducing our back to those motions. That way, when we stand up and do the same motions later, our back is warmed up and it’s not so alarming!
What is Actually ‘Tight’ With Low Back Tightness?
Low back tightness can seem tricky and complex sometimes. You feel the tightness and the pain, you can point to it, but you can’t figure out what it is?! We really like the image above and because it gives you a global appreciation of how everything meets in the middle of the low back. The white area that you see on the right side is the thoracolumbar fascia, which consists of really strong and thick connective tissue for muscles and other structures to connect to. We like to tell our patients that sometimes it may not be the back’s fault, it may just be the victim. We have to investigate above and below the low back to see if the neck, shoulders, pelvis, or the hips are contributing to the issue.
Getting into this idea of ‘tightness’ is also a sensitive subject as well, especially when it comes to the opinions of different healthcare clinicians. There is no denying the fact that people do feel and report a sensation of ‘tightness’. However, there is a lack of consensus and scientific evidence to suggest that low back tightness is due to ‘tight/shortened muscles’ 100% of the time.
Many times, it’s our body’s perception of a lack of movement that we actually feel as “tightness”
It’s common that first thing in the morning, our back feels stiff! Well, that should come as no surprise as (hopefully) you’ve spent the last 8 hours lying down in bed! The sensation of stiffness doesn’t necessarily mean that our back is broken or needs fixing, it’s just our body telling us that we need to move. So when we feel stiff, let’s move!
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How To Manage Low Back Tightness
The best way to manage low back tightness is to treat it comprehensively. However, the beauty of a comprehensive approach is there are options and in today’s’ world people like options! With low back issues, there are different methods to get the same solution. We like to give the analogy of 4+5 gets you the same outcome as 6+3, it’s just a different journey you take. For a lot of people, one journey may fit better than another depending on the persons’ lifestyle habits and behaviors, activity level, occupation/job, previous experiences, beliefs, exercise experience, and more. Below we outline a few steps that can help you with your journey to combat low back tightness!
Identify The Triggers Of Low Back Tightness & Slowly Re-Work Them Into Life
More often than not, its the small things that add up that are contributing to your on-going low back issue. Before you start doing anything and everything you’ve heard that can help with low back pain, examine your life, and try to identify the triggers. Does your back always feel tight after a certain activity, movement, or event? If so, then we can identify that as a trigger to our back pain. Sometimes you may be able to identify a ton of triggers, and other times it may not seem that there is a trigger at all – that is okay and very normal! If you can identify any consistent triggers, the next step would be to slowly re-integrate them into your day to day life.
An example of a trigger could be bending over to pick things off the ground. Say initially when your back hurt, it was sensitive to bending over – lumbar flexion. So initially, the correct movement strategy to adopt would be to avoid excessive bending over as your body is telling you that it’s sensitive to that! This strategy might mean kneeling on the ground instead of stooping over to pick objects off the ground. Or it may mean temporarily asking for assistance from others to pick up bulky objects off the ground.
However, once our back becomes less sensitive to that movement, we must start working on re-integrating the old, painful trigger into our day to day activities.
This may seem counter-intuitive at first – why would I want to do an activity that causes discomfort and tightness? Our bodies are always trying to maintain a level of homeostasis that it deems as “normal”. If for the last few weeks, we never fully bent over to pick up objects, our back will get used to this lack of bending over, and this becomes our new normal. So now a few weeks later when your back is feeling better and you’re starting to forget about your back pain, you intuitively bend down to pick something off the ground and BAM – you feel that discomfort and tightness in your back again. Your back, which has not been exposed to bending down much over the last few weeks, all of a sudden is fluidly bending down again (because it can and it felt better) and this comes as a shock to your nervous system! This is completely out of the “new normal” over the past few weeks. Now you, scared that “the pain is back”, continue to avoid bending down even though your back technically can (as it did it!)
This feeds into a vicious cycle of avoiding that trigger, and our back and brain become more and more sensitive. In order to break this cycle, we can begin to incorporate gentle, low load exercises that expose our bodies to those exact same triggers! In the example of bending over, we would want to expose our back to lumbar flexion. While there are a wide variety of exercises that can do this, some of our favorites are the two below.
Low Back Tightness: Bent Over Cat Cow
Start with your hips against the wall. Make sure your feet are about shoulder width apart. Bend over and place your elbow on your knees. Starting with your back flat, arch it downwards, then curve it upwards in a controlled, slow motion. Imagine making the shape of a cat arching its back, and then moving into the shape of a cow with a hump in the lower back. Make sure to breathe out at the end range of each motion.
Low Back Tightness: Don’t Overlook Your Overall Health
Before you scroll down to read more, make sure you’re taking advantage of the low hanging fruit. Below are questions that you should be asking yourself because they don’t require any special talents, but they can go a long way for your back health.
- How is your sleep going?
- What about your relationships?
- Are you managing stress well?
- Are you taking care of your body and eating well?
- Are you doing too much too soon physical activity-wise?
Simple reflection can go a really long well. It may not resolve your back issues immediately, but it can help guide you in the right direction on your journey!
No matter how long you have suffered from back issues, it is never too late to start feeling better. We get it, we have dealt with low back issues too! We have blended science with our clinical expertise and our personal experiences to provide you with the ultimate solution. This program has been tested and proven by countless people both in the clinic and digitally, and we know it can help you too! For more click HERE.
Movement Is Medicine For Low Back Tightness
In the first video in the article, we covered six of our favorite movements to combat low back tightness. While there are many different exercises and movements you can incorporate into a routine, we believe that some key points to keep in mind include hip mobility, segmental mobility, moving in all three planes of motions.
We often get asked the question, what about foam rolling? That is totally okay! There is nothing inherently wrong with using these techniques if performed correctly; however, it may be worthwhile reconsidering and challenging our biases as to what we think is actually happening when we perform these different methods designed to help us stretch.
Foam Rolling Your Low Back
This is a great video that debunks the idea foam rolling your low back is inherently bad, what foam rolling does and doesn’t do, and 3 mobility and stability exercises for your low back. We highly recommend giving the video description a read as we went DEEP into this topic!
Increasing Your Low Back Capacity
There is a lot of debate about what low back and trunk stabilization exercises are really doing, however, when it comes to exercise we know that at a minimum we are at least doing two things:
- Encouraging movement and an active form of therapy aka exercise!
- Improving the capacity of the lower back
Capacity can be defined as “what the lower back can handle”. While this term incorporates the capacity of our entire body as a whole, let’s simplify it to just a measure of endurance, in this example, the ability to hold a plank for time. Let’s say that initially, you can only hold a plank for only 20 seconds before fatiguing out. Then over the next month, you incorporate planks into your health and wellness routine a couple of times a week. By the end of the month, you are now able to hold a plank for over a minute! You have just increased the capacity of your lower back! By holistically increasing the capacity of your lower back, we may be able to fight off those feelings of “stiffness” as we are trying to increase what our low back can handle! Some of our favorite exercises for increasing low back capacity include loaded carries. This is about as functional as it gets!
Carry – Suitcase, Unilateral
- HOW: Begin by standing while holding a kettlebell in one hand down at your side. Maintain a tall position and walk forward holding the kettlebell at your side for the prescribed amount of time or distance.
- FEEL: You should feel your shoulder and trap muscles working.
- COMPENSATION: Don’t lean to the opposite side of the weight, maintain good posture while walking.
Understanding that stiffness does not necessarily equal a “tight” muscle or “damage” in the spine is important to give you the confidence to do more with your low back. This understanding of how our brain and bodies try to overly protect ourselves from things that we can do applies to everybody region, but especially our low back. Now that you’re armed with this knowledge as well as tons of great exercises and routines to combat back tightness, get on it and WIN the day!