Lower back pain is more common than neck pain: it is the second leading cause for physician visits in the US. It is so crippling that Americans spend an estimated $50 billion annually on lower back pain alone. This preventable ailment is taxing our wallets and healthcare system. Because our lower backs are foundational to our morale, fortitude, and faith in ourselves, weakness and pain in that area tax our very sense of personal agency.
In most cases, the predominant reason for back pain is muscular imbalance. Vital muscles are left underused and undeveloped while others are overused and strained. We use them at only a fraction of their full range, and usually only while breathing shallowly. This corrupts the muscles with the same ailment we have been discussing all along: dormancy due to partial contraction.
Illustration 17.1: A. Interior anatomy of the lower back with some underlying musculature revealed; B. Exterior musculature of the lower back; C. Excessive backward curve (lordosis) in the lower back.
My lower back was treacherous. The muscles surrounding my lumbar vertebrae were in such bad shape that they hurt every time I coughed or sneezed. I would severely strain my lower back every year due to stress, lack of sleep, or improper exercise, leaving me unable to walk for days at a time. A few times, I was bedridden for a week, forced to crawl back and forth to the bathroom on my hands and knees. Since I began anti-rigidity training, this has never happened. The dormant muscle that used to lock up when I threw my back out was transformed into springy, mobile, load-accepting muscle. I unraveled my entire lumbar region by combining anti-rigidity, spinal decompression, stretching, and therapeutic massage. This chapter will touch on each of these, giving you the information you need to transform your body’s most powerful physical asset.
How tense is your lower back? The activity below will guide you through using your fingers to feel the tense, dormant muscles along the back of your hips (iliac crest).
Illustration 17.2: A.Man feeling tense knots at a sacroiliac joint; B. Woman with apparent dimples at the sacroiliac joints; C. Spine and pelvis seen from behind. The sacroiliac joints are marked with an “x.“
As you know from Chapter 13, the lower part of our spine, called the lumbar region, naturally curves backward. This backward bend is known as lumbar lordosis. The lower back is bent lordotically to support the legs and absorb impact. In lordosis, the top of the pelvis is tilted forward as if you were pouring a bowl of soup from your waist out in front of you. In most people, this lordotic curve is excessive, making it structurally unsound. When the lordosis is excessive, it is called “anterior pelvic tilt” or “pelvic anteversion.” Generally, the more pelvic tilt one has, the less pelvic mobility is available to them.
When my back had excessive lordosis, my belly button was very far from my nipples. Observe your belly button in your default posture. How far is it from your nipples? To correct this, flex your glutes, push your hips forward, and watch your belly button rise. Squeezing your glutes resets your pelvis-lumbar relationship back to where nature intended it to be. That is why it is essential to do this throughout the day.
Illustration 17.3: A. Excessive lumbar lordosis is apparent as a considerable distance between the navel and nipples; B. Flexing the glutes and pushing the hips forward results in a neutral lower spine with less distance between the belly button and nipples; C. Excessive lumbar lordosis from the side; D. Neutral spine with glutes flexed
You can also neutralize excessive lordosis by teaching the lower spine to curve in the extreme opposite direction. To do this, flex the hips inward and up toward the face (lumbar kyphosis). This rotates the imaginary soup bowl backward so that the soup is no longer pouring out in front of you. I like to think of this posture as “shrimping up” because it involves curling the spine’s bottom half toward the stomach. Flex your glutes as you do this, and it becomes the equivalent of neck retraction.
Recruiting Your Gluteus Muscles
When the glutes are offline, other muscles, poorly suited for the job, are forced to support the core and stabilize the trunk. It is generally the muscles in the lower back and hips that end up compensating for underuse of the gluteus muscles, taking on heaps of tension in the process. To counteract this and set your pelvis in a neutral position, simply contract your buttocks. Squeezing your butt ensures your pelvic posture and tilt are optimized.
Pilates advocates maintaining a neutral spine by sucking your stomach in, flexing your abdominals, relaxing the lumbar spine, and holding the glutes in a light contraction. During Pilates workouts, practitioners try to maintain this core engagement throughout every exercise. Neutral spine and glute engagement should be generalized to everything you do, not just exercise. Ideally, the glutes should have some form of contractile tone with every movement you make. This will trim your abdomen and increase the strength and size of your butt. Another reason some people don’t flex the glutes is they want to increase the conspicuousness of their butt as excessive lumbar lordosis pushes the butt out further. However, lumbar lordosis deactivates the glutes and, with time, their tone will decrease, resulting in a smaller, weaker butt.
Flexing the glutes is a dominant expression that we shouldn’t hesitate to make. Most people avoid it, however, because the way their life has programed them, contracting their glutes takes their breath away. Imagine being a naked caveman or woman. The commanding ones had gluteal tone and the unassuming ones had hindquarters that were soft and limp. So, use anti-laxity to make glute firmness your default by paring firm glute contractions with deep breathing many times per day. While this can make the lower back feel stiff, you can also employ anti-rigidity with the glutes contracted, moving in ways that target unfamiliar, achy configurations.
Perform Anti-rigidity During Cat and Cow Poses
Performing anti-rigidity maneuvers within yoga poses is an excellent way to find dormant lower back muscles that will benefit from being contracted. In particular, cow, cat, and bird-dog poses are the bread and butter of lower back health.
Illustration 17.4: A.Cat or camel pose; B. Cow pose; C. Bird-dog pose.
Backward Bends Straighten Your Spine
A powerful way to counteract lumbar lordosis is to gradually introduce your body to global back extension. You can start by watching TV lying on your stomach. To make this more comfortable, you can prop yourself up on your elbows or place a pillow under your chest. To make it harder, try pressing the pubic bone into the floor until you are balancing on your pelvis and balling your buttocks into firm mounds. When you need something harder still, gently lift your feet and knees off the ground.
Use the back extension exercises in which you rolled over a basketball from Chapter 13 to complement these positions. The simple act of lying on your stomach on the floor will make you feel stiff at first, so remember to perform a forward bend or a few sit-ups afterward as a counterpose. With time, work toward a full upward dog pose. If you can breathe slowly and fully in these positions, you can dismantle your vertebral tension.
Illustration 17.5:A.Reading on the stomach; B. Pressing the pelvis into the ground; C. Upward dog pose.
Downward Dog Pose
Downward dog is another key yoga pose. After you internalize the mechanics of downward dog, try “walking the dog” by bending one knee at a time. Next, try shifting the butt left and right while holding downward dog. Pivot as much as you can with your hips while doing this. You can access many normally inaccessible muscles all over the spine from this position. This includes muscles in your neck. For example, from downward dog, look to the right, raising and lowering the head 20 times. Repeat this while looking to the left. Spend time walking around in downward dog, doing the “bear crawl.”
Illustration 17.6: A, B, C, & D. Downward dog pose; E & F. Plow pose.
Strengthen the Hip Flexors: Child’s, Happy Baby, and Pigeon Poses
Strengthening the hip flexor muscles on the front side of your waist is imperative for lower back health. To do this, practice the poses below while focusing on bringing the knee closer to the chest in a way that creates a firm contraction in the frontal portion of the hip. If you breathe through the subtle pinch in the hip flexor, you can coax it to contract fully. Doing this regularly will cause your hip flexors to become much stronger and provide integral support for your lower back.
Illustration 17.7: A.Child’s pose; B. Happy baby pose; C & D. Pigeon pose.
There are many joints in the lower back and hips that articulate very subtly. They amount to a small degree of movement, but their presence or absence affects every lower body motion. For instance, people with a mobile sacroiliac joint can twist their trunk below the waist. If you sit in a chair and turn to look over your shoulder, you want the turning motion to extend from the neck all the way down to the sitz bones. If the rotation stops at your waist level, you know that your sacroiliac joint is locked up. Regular trunk twists will unlock a multitude of muscles along your spine, allowing your hips to move with your legs during walking and making every lower body movement more graceful, sensual, and stable.
Illustration 17.8: Trunk twist while: A. seated in a chair; B. standing; C. touching the floor; D. seated on the ground.
Illustration 17.9. Hip twist progression. The first row shows a version of this exercise where the feet are not touching. The second row shows a much more challenging version where the feet are touching. Performing this 20 times daily will help you progress from the first version to the second over just a few months while building lower back and core strength.
Wagging Your Tail
Next, I will describe a tactic to engage your hips that can lead to better hip mobility. I think of it as wagging the tail. To do this, tilt your pelvis from side to side. This is called pelvic incline or list. One hip goes up while the other goes down, and then, you reverse it. One way to master this movement is to relax on your back, keeping both legs straight. Then, pull one leg in toward you and push the other away. Practice varying the extent, intensity, and speed until you develop coordination. Once you have mastered this hip swivel, you can even do it while seated. The contractions involved will lead you to plenty of achy muscles. Combining tail wagging with anti-rigidity will help restore motor control and fluid motion to the hips and pelvis.
Illustration 17.10:A & B. Sitting pelvic tilt; C & D. Lying pelvic tilt.
Standing, One Leg Up
While standing, place one foot flat on a surface that is between knee and waist height. This will allow you to leverage your way into hip frailty to which you may have previously been oblivious. From here, you can also perform isometric contractions of your side (obliques), abdominals, and one of your glutes. Regularly put one foot up on tables and countertops to achieve these.
Illustration 17.11: With one leg up perform a: A. side bend; B. twist; or C. forward bend.
Rock and Roll on the Floor
An excellent way to resituate your lumbar vertebrae is to rock up and down your spine from your tailbone to your neck. To avoid injury, do this on a carpet or yoga mat. Lie down on your back and pull your knees into your chest. Roll forward and backward. Attempt to roll smoothly from the first position depicted in the drawings below to the third and back again repeatedly. To do this properly, you want your entire spine curved into a forward C-shape (kyphosis). You should find that as you rock into the third position pictured below, where the man has his weight on his neck, your lumbar region is subject to a pleasurable pulling sensation. Use this for anti-rigidity.
Illustration 17.12: Rolling in a ball to achieve anti-rigidity.
Squats create formidable strength but also expose us to a high risk of injury. I recommend performing them with absolutely no weight as a way to develop foundational strength. Performing between five and 30 squat repetitions every other day is a great way to improve force and power production in the body. If you aren’t using weights, you can play with and vary the forces acting on the disks and vertebrae, distributing them in different ways to intentionally load the weakest segments.
Illustration 17.13: A.Performing squats or deadlifts with heavy weight and invariant posture inevitably leads to injury and pain. As should be clear by now, our bodies were not designed for this kind of strain; B & C. Instead, opt for bodyweight squats with optimal, neutral posture or minor postural variations.
Especially if you perform squats with additional weight, it is imperative to squat using proper form. You want your back flat, feet straight, and your knees slightly outside your feet yet behind your toes. Take a wide stance with your feet just outside the shoulders. As you squat, keep your shins as vertical as possible, not tilted forward. Put your hands at chin height out in front of you. At the bottom of the squat, you want to maintain a neutral curve in your lower back without excessive lordosis or kyphosis. As you stand, flex your butt.
I strongly recommend starting with supported squats. You can achieve this by holding a rail, tabletop, chair leg, pair of doorknobs, TRX bands, or gymnastics rings, and using them to pull yourself up. You can also place your hands on your knees and push against them for support. This will reduce the forces on your hips, knees, and ankles, allowing you to progress into unsupported squats in time. Breathing deeply from a low squat with your knees moderately loaded will recondition them, healing that “crunchy” quality and reducing their tendency to pop and lock up. It will do the same for your ankles and lower back.
Most people cannot perform a full-range, butt-to-ankle squat. While many exercise professionals advise against lowering your butt below the knees when squatting, I recommend lowering your butt to rest on your heels but only if you do so with body weight in a slow, controlled manner. When paired with diaphragmatic breathing, a complete squat will give you a full lower back stretch extending to where your lumbar spine meets your sacrum, excising the tension from this area.
Everyone should do bodyweight squats. Even doing only five a day will inevitably teach your body to do it properly. I recommend trying other advanced weightlifting techniques such as lunges, power cleans, snatches, and deadlifts with either body weight or very light dumbbells. I recommend only adding weight once you have mastered the form and can do 30 repetitions without any discomfort.
Studies have shown that lower back exercises are the most beneficial when practiced daily. More importantly, endurance exercise is recommended over exertive exercise for its protective value. In other words, use low intensity (body weight) and high repetition (10 to 100) to slowly and gently bring these muscles to fatigue. These will establish your unrealized core strength.
Holding a static squat with your butt at the level of your knees is an age-old yoga technique. In martial arts, this is done with the legs somewhat spread in a pose called “horse stance,” which is used to strengthen the lower back and create a feeling of “groundedness.” A system called Foundation Training, developed by Eric Goodman, popularized another version of the static squat called the “founder” pose. Check out his version online. A static squat helps isolate and strengthen the epicenter of lower back frailty.
Illustration 17.14: A. Static squat with lumbar lordosis; B. Static squat with lumbar neutrality; C. Static squat with lumbar kyphosis.
Release the Hamstrings
Most of us have hamstring tension that has caused them to adapt to shorter-than-normal resting length. Shortened hamstrings tug insidiously on the sitz bones, placing significant pressure on the lower back. This constant pull forces the pelvis into excessive lordosis. This is why stretching the hamstrings is very important for lower back health. One of the best ways to stretch your hamstrings is to lie on your back with one leg in the air, wrapping a towel or belt around your foot. From here, pull your foot toward your head as pictured below. A ubiquitous lower back disorder called “lower cross” syndrome is marked by short and tight hamstrings and groin muscles, along with weak and underdeveloped buttocks and abdominals. Hamstring and hip flexor stretches will relieve the former while squats and sit-ups will strengthen the latter.
Illustration 17.15: A. Man sitting with legs straight releasing the hamstrings; B. Stretching the hamstring using a towel; C. The features of the lower cross syndrome.
Spinal Decompression and Traction
Age and pressure pull our vertebrae closer together, compressing the spine. This makes the spine like an inchworm that has retracted its telescoping body segments. Decompression (also known as spinal traction) stretches the muscles surrounding the spinal vertebrae, increasing circulation and resting length. Once these muscles are stretched, they can contract more fully and undergo anti-rigidity exercises. Spinal decompression can feel precarious, like you are being pulled apart. Combining it with diaphragmatic breathing, however, will assure your spine that it is safe to expand to full length.
A great way to decompress is to use an inversion table and lie upside down, suspended by your feet, for a few minutes each day. Commonly recommended by physicians, inversion tables have demonstrated significant clinical benefits. A second method to achieve this is to practice “stretchlying,”1 which I encourage you to read about online. Third, passive motion from shaking can also aid in decompression. Passive motion can come from having someone jostle your spine rhythmically or using a reciprocating “chi machine” that continuously shakes the body. All three of these techniques often cause people’s spines to tense up defensively. But, if you give in to it, you can teach your spinal muscles not to resist the passive forces. As you might imagine, paced breathing is immensely helpful to that end.
Massage also has decompressive effects (e.g., Activity 6.1). Consider having a masseuse perform an easy deep tissue massage on your lower back. After a few visits, it should feel comfortable for them to use their elbows to press deeply into every area surrounding your lumbar spine. Having a masseuse stand on your lower back can also be helpful and is common in Thai massage. If your back is very strong, you can ask your masseuse to stand on your pelvis and take gentle steps all the way up your spine. This is a fantastic way to decompress these areas, but it can be dangerous.
Decompressing the spine will help your muscles extend to their intended length. However, because they have yet to be used at this length and have poor tone as a result, they will initially be vulnerable to injury if accidentally contracted too forcefully. This is why, after any form of decompression, you should avoid intense workouts and instead use anti-rigidity carefully and remedially.
Compression and Massage
Compressing the muscles in your lower back by lying on top of baseballs is highly effective. To do this, lie with your back on the ground and bend your knees. Place a baseball on each side of your spine, just above your pelvis, or along the iliac crest. Alternatively, you can use softballs or tennis balls if baseballs are too painful. Once the balls are in place, lift your feet into the air. Use your legs to regulate the pressure placed on the balls, directing that pressure into the sorest spots. You can also use them to compress the muscles around your love handles, as well as the gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, piriformis, and others.
You want to rest each portion of your pelvis on the balls for several seconds at a time, ensuring you are breathing deeply and slowly. The tremendous aching sensation results in fresh blood pouring into stale, lifeless muscles. The aching will be vastly reduced after only a dozen five-minute sessions. However, as with the decompression exercises in the last section, it potentially leaves your lower back open to serious injury if you load these newly relaxed muscles too intensely or too soon. Therefore, I recommend performing this after your regular exercises or before bed. Using baseballs in this way will uproot the iliac knots and expel the tension from your lower back
Illustration 17.16: A. Man pressing two baseballs into the sacroiliac joints; B. Man rolling lower back over a foam “rumble” roller; C. Man using an inversion table.
When baseballs are pressing into your back, the pressure will change your back’s normal configuration, permitting stretches in planes of motion previously blocked. Take advantage of this and perform anti-rigidity in these planes. You can attain the same effect by placing a football, basketball, or yoga block under your sacrum while lying supine.
Like cankles, love handles form due to dormant muscle. Press a baseball, thumb, knuckle, or tool into the spongey, dormant muscles responsible for your love handles. Focus on pressing firmly into the top ridge of your posterior pelvis. Compressing and percussing these muscles will revive them, introduce new mobility in your hips, and accordingly reduce fat deposition at the site.
To reduce confusion, it is important for me to address the idea of localized fat loss. The majority of scientific studies have debunked the idea of targeted fat loss sometimes called “spot reduction.” In other words, working out a particular area of the body may reduce overall body fat, but generally does not reduce fat deposition at that particular site. For instance, doing a lot of bicep curls makes them bigger but does not reduce the fat content of the upper arm. However, it is my conviction that rehabilitating dormant muscle using the anti-rigidity and massage techniques outlined in this book can result in spot reduction. I have seen dramatic instances of it on my own body and on those of my clients. As the crunchy, achy muscle around your midsection is rehabbed, it will become lean and trim.
How to Bend Over
Most people bend over from the waist. This means they hunch their spine forward from the height of their belly button to bend down. This leads to injury. When bending, you want to keep your spine straight by bending a few inches lower, at the hips. This results in a hinge from the hip with a straight back. Hip hinging strengthens the erector spinae muscles and stretches the hamstrings. Fully engage the stomach muscles to help buffer the load on the lumbar spine. Of course, if you are picking up something heavy, you should squat down and lift with the knees. Otherwise, lift small loads by hip hinging.
Illustration 17.17: A. Improper bending from the waist; B. Proper hinging from the hips; C. Proper squatting to lift a load.
The more often you can bend over by hip hinging, the better. I shoot for 10 times per day. Put commonly used objects such as your phone charger on the floor so that you must bend to the ground every time you use them.
Perfecting Your Sit-Ups
Sit-ups are the best counterpose for any work with your spine. They will reset your vertebrae from your neck to your tailbone. They place the lower back into neutrality, helping protect individual muscles from the repetitive strain that comes from being out of alignment. For this reason, it is constructive to perform 10-20 sit-ups after performing the other back exercises in this chapter.
A few advanced variations to try when doing sit-ups: 1) Place a small firm pillow (or “sit-up pad”) under your lower back so that near the top of the sit-up you have something for your kyphotic lumbar spine to arch against, and press away from. This will help ensure that you are not stuck in lordosis during the sit-up; 2) Straighten your legs and rest the backs of your knees on the ground throughout the motion; 3) Flex your buttocks as you come down from each sit-up; 4) Turn your neck and look to each side.
Doing sit-ups on the floor can irritate muscles that aren’t used to the intense forces. This is why I recommend doing sit-ups in bed. It provides outstanding remedial rehab for the entire spine and will accentuate all your other efforts to improve your neck and lower back. Every human should take three minutes to do at least 25 sit-ups in bed every other day.
Illustration 17.18: A.Sit-ups; B. Massaging the iliac crests with the knuckles; C. Elevating the sacrum with a basketball into an unfamiliar position for anti-rigidity.
Remember the tense cords of muscle you found with your fingers between your lower spine and hips at the beginning of this chapter? When you compress, stretch, and tone these muscles, you will develop a different diagnostic marker: dimples. Spinal experts claim that people with a dimple just above each buttock on either side of the spine have very healthy lower backs.[i] The dimples demarcate mobility and strength in the sacroiliac joints. I used the methods in this chapter for a whole year, experienced dramatic results, and still lacked these two dimples. I figured the experts were wrong. No, I was wrong. After two additional years of using these methods, I finally developed the dimples.
Over the last five years, I have spent at least five minutes every day reconditioning my lower back. It was chronically painful before, and now there is zero pain. The alignment of my vertebrae has changed significantly. Some vertebrae were far more prominent than others; they even felt crooked to the touch. Yet now they all lie in a straight line. I used to live in fear of the next back injury, but now a back injury seems almost inconceivable. After you use the exercises in this chapter, your body will unconsciously recognize that your lower back will not fail you. If you are like me, once you can trust your spine to support everything you do, immense amounts of unconscious trepidation will be relieved.
Chapter Seventeen: Bullet Points
- Portions of the lower back are rarely used, so they remain in a tense state of partial contraction. This leaves them susceptible to injury and causes lower back pain.
- To optimize lumbar mobility, use anti-rigidity exercises in the lumbar region by bending, extending, and flexing it in every direction.
- Doing sit-ups, yoga poses, Pilates, toe touches, trunk twists, hip-hinging, hip-swiveling, deadlifts, squats, and lunges will all help.
- These exercises should be performed with only your bodyweight, at very low intensity, with many repetitions.
- Bend over and touch your toes several times per day. When doing so, bend from the hip, not the waist.
- You can employ traction to decompress the spine by using an inversion table, “stretchlying,” or decompressive massage.
- You can unlock the lumbar spinal muscles, glutes, hips, and the entire sacroiliac joint by massaging the area with baseballs, compressing it with your knuckles, or percussing it with tools.
- Put your lower back and hips into as many unfamiliar configurations as possible. Rehab these configurations from all angles using deep breathing, anti-laxity and anti-rigidity.