After copious years filled with aches, pains, and ice packs, the prevalence of lower back pain in America has become common knowledge. Any quality health professional is familiar with the staggering statistic that 80% of Americans will experience some form of back pain in their lifetime.
A lesser-known statistic is that the majority of structural back problems do not even inflict symptoms right away. In 1994 researchers took MRI’s of 98 people with no symptoms of back pain. 82% of those subjects had some form of bulging spinal disc (1). With such a large population affected, I will be devoting two articles to this serious problem. In a future piece I will discuss some exercise considerations, but today I will be covering some dos and don’ts of stretching that may surprise you.
Before I get started I want to make it perfectly clear that these recommendations are for those not currently experiencing back pain. If you are presently in any form of pain, my professional advice is no longer appropriate and I highly recommend seeking the care of a qualified chiropractor or physical therapist.
When it comes to stretches for preventing back pain one of the worst things you can do, ironically, is stretching the lower back itself. Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spinal biomechanics at University of Waterloo in Canada, explains “scientific evidence shows that, on average, those who have more range of motion in their backs have a greater risk of future troubles” (2). Instead what we hope for is increased strength and stability surrounding the spine, and excessive stretches may compromise that.
So rather than stretching the spine, I recommend stretching muscles that can negatively effect your alignment such as the hamstrings, glutes, and hip-flexors. Below are my favorite stretches for each.
Single leg raise
This is a very effective way to stretch your hamstrings, as it does not allow you to compensate by rounding your low back. Hold one leg in place while you raise and lower the opposite leg. Aim to keep both legs as straight as possible with your toes pointing directly up.
This stretch can be performed either seated or lying down, whichever feels more comfortable and allows you to keep your back neutral. You can adjust the degree of the stretch by pulling your non-rotated leg toward you.
Half Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
In the half kneeling position, shift body weight slightly forward until moderate stretch is felt in the front of your hip. The most important thing here is to focus on retaining a straight posture from knee to hip to shoulders. On the left is a demonstration of poor positioning, while the right is a safer and more effective position.
Perform these simple stretches at the end of your workout session for best results. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and repeat twice. Remember, stretching should never cause pain, just mild discomfort. Have fun with these new stretches and come back next time for the healthy back sequel.
To health and happiness,
Chris Caden CPT
North Hollywood CA