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How I Fixed My Back Pain



Written by Coach Rob (Originally on Rob's Blog)
 
Three years ago, at 21 years old, my low back pain was so bad I couldn’t stand up in the morning. I hobbled around my apartment for 15 minutes upon waking just to be able to brush my teeth. I couldn’t sit down at work for more than five minutes without pain. I stopped exercising. I stopped going out. I was miserable.
 
I saw medical professionals. They said I had degeneration in my disks (L4 + L5) and that stretching and core exercises wouldn’t help. I didn’t buy it. I still don’t.
 
Fast forward to today. Now, I train CrossFit 5–6 times per week and Jiu-Jitsu 2–3 times per week. I am 100% pain-free.
 
So what changed? My disks didn’t repair themselves. I didn’t take pain killers. I didn’t go to chiropractor for adjustments. And, I never had surgery.
 
The reason I am no longer in pain is two-fold:
 
  1. I move better throughout my day.
  2. I’ve strengthened my muscles to do the job they were designed for.
Let me explain…
 
 
Posture: Right — Neutral Spine, Left — Over-extended low back
 
Which one are you? I realized that years of sitting in school had predisposed me to a posture that exposed my low back to harmful stresses. Sitting shortens our hamstrings and tends to shut down our core stabilizers. This causes many of us to adopt a posture with an over-extended lumbar spine. Notice the difference between the two photos and the unnatural curve in the low back (right photo).
 
So how do we fix it?
 
First of all…
 
Stop sitting so much. Even if you are at the office, start walking and moving more. Take breaks throughout the day. Maybe adopt a standing desk.
 
My go-to reference for this topic is Deskbound by Dr. Kelly Starrett. I can’t recommend it enough.
 
Second…
 
Learn to use your core. Try this drill (i.e. the bracing sequence):
  1. Stand up with your feet underneath your hips and your toes pointing forward. 
  2. “Screw” your feet into the ground. Imagine gripping the floor with your feet and trying to spread it.
  3. Squeeze your butt. Not literally. Instead, contract you glutes. You will literally feel your pelvis “tuck” underneath your spine. This is a good thing! The glutes are vital to adopting the correct posture shown above (left in photo) and making sure your lumbar spine remains neutral and free of harmful stresses.
  4. Engage your core. Imagine making a six pack or bracing to take a punch in your gut. When you do this, you will feel your ribcage get pulled down towards your belly button. This is good, too. Now, your midsection is neutral and braced. Once the core is engaged, feel free to let go of the tension in your glutes. The glutes “set” the position. The abs “lock” it in.
  5. Pack your shoulders. Imagine pinching your shoulder blades together, then packing them down towards your butt. Remember, abs should still be braced (around 20–40% max tension).
Congrats! You have just created a braced, neutral spine. This is the way your body was designed to protect the spine. Your spinal column is NOT meant to absorb impact. Instead, we engage the musculature around it to take the brunt of the load. The above method is how powerlifters squat and deadlift 1000 pounds without snapping in half.
 
Whenever you feel yourself getting out of position in daily life, simply stop what you are doing and go through the “bracing sequence” as described above. This can be applied to walking, running, sitting, standing, and lifting. The more you practice, the better you get. It will soon become second nature — at least it did for me.
 
One way to “test” your bracing sequence is to start adding “hollow body” holds into your exercise routine. The easiest progression is shown in the top frame of the picture below. The most difficult progression is shown in the bottom frame. The goal is to turn on the glutes and abs, thereby flattening the low back against the ground while simultaneously curling the shoulders up off the ground. Aim for 5 sets of a 20–30 sec hold. A more advanced challenge would be to do a Hollow Body Tabata.
 
Tabata = 8 intervals of 20 seconds all-out intensity exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest
 
 
Third…
 
Use your posterior chain. I’m not saying that you have to start lifting weights. But you do need to master the motor patterns that make us human.
 
Primary movement pattern #1 — Hip Hinge
 
 
Hip Hinge Examples: Good Morning, Banded Good Morning, Kettlebell Deadlift
 
Before I had back pain, I thought my spine was a joint. I thought it was supposed to bend and flex under load. And, to some degree, that is true. The human body is very robust and can take a lot of abuse, but that doesn’t mean we should treat it poorly. I now realize that the primary load bearing joint of the body is the hip. The spine is meant to stay neutral and braced for most of what we do. If we utilize the hip hinge and load the hips instead of the spine, wonderful things happen.
 
Aim to develop the hip hinge and strengthen the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, back, etc.). Your back will thank you for it.
 
Start with a PVC Good Morning. Then, progress to a Banded or Weighted Good Morning. Finally, try applying the hip hinge to a Deadlift (kettlebell, barbell, etc.). The primary concern with the hip hinge is to maintain a neutral spine while loading the hips and hamstrings. Imagine pushing a car door closed behind you. Shins remain vertical and knees have a very small bend (not stiff legged). The movement is completed upon full hip extension (i.e. squeeze the glutes).
 
Primary movement pattern #2 — Squat
 
Deep Squat: How humans raise and lower their center of mass
 
Oh, the squat… how I love you. If there is one thing I am passionate about, it’s squatting (just ask my family/friends). I realize that is a very bizarre thing to be passionate about, but you can’t change the truth. This is a wonderful movement pattern for fighting back, hip, and knee pain. It’s also the way the humans are designed to rest.
 
There are two variations you need to be aware of:
 
One — Air Squat (For reps. Defined by hip crease below parallel. Back remains braced and neutral throughout movement):
 
 
Upon mastery of the air squat, external loads can be added (back squat, goblet squat, front squat, overhead squat for example) to continue to increase strength and functionality of the movement.
 
Two — Deep Squat (For resting. Flexed lumbar spine is OK, even therapeutic. Performed to max depth.)
 
 
I’ve found this position to be very therapeutic for my low back, knees, and hips. This position demonstrates full range of motion in the hips, knees, and ankles. Try and accumulate time here throughout the day (start with 2 min and progress to upwards of 10 minutes in one sitting). In the beginning, hitting depth with relatively straight feet will be very difficult. Over time this will become easier, comfortable even. More info below:
 
 
There are no wonder drugs or quick fixes when it comes to long term success in fighting back pain.
But I’d take putting in the hard work and enjoying a life free of pain and full of freedom any day over a surgery bill or pain killer.
 
It is possible to get out of pain. You have to trust the process and commit to some lifestyle changes. Don’t put up with faulty movement patterns. If you are experiencing pain, I challenge you to put in the work starting today.
 
Don’t you think it’s time to take your life back?
 
Here are some more resources that helped me tremendously in my fight:

For more helpful tips, follow Rob on Instagram.

 

Group Class Programming for Monday, March 5th, 2017:

Life:
21-15-9:
Dumbbell Thrusters (15/10#)
Push-ups
*2:00, 1:30, and 1:00 caps
*9:00 total cap (same as "Diane" and "Elizabeth")
*goal is to master the Push-up *use elevated Push-up if necessary.

Fitness:
21-15-9:
Thrusters (65/45#)
Down Dog Piked Push-ups
*2:00, 1:30, and 1:00 caps
*9:00 total cap (same as "Diane" and "Elizabeth")
*emphasize a PERFECT Down Dog Piked Push-ups.
*include a 31X1 tempo if necessary *GOAL is to work towards developing competency with Strict Handstand Push-up, NOT to blast through the workout.

Performance:
21-15-9:
Thrusters (95/65#)
Handstand Push-ups
*2:00, 1:30, and 1:00 caps
*9:00 total cap (same as "Diane" and "Elizabeth")
*Handstand Push-up hands and head must be performed/touch on same object/material at the same height
(if you want to touch your head to something other than the ground (abMat, yoga mat, etc. then your hands must be placed on the same object).

 

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