Imagine that you’re sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day. Actually imagine it: Where are your legs? Your feet? Your back? Do you tend to sit on your tailbone? Are you prone to keeping your feet elevated, perhaps because they don’t quite reach the ground or maybe because you’re more comfortable that way? Do you lean over your desk, head on one hand, writing with the other?
Now, imagine that you sit that way for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week … and then you go home and sit some more on the couch. For some of you, that’s just life.
When you’re seated, your hips flexors (the muscles that raise your legs so you can walk up stairs) are in a shortened position. Your glutes, on the other hand, are in a lengthened position. Your low back, if you sit on your tailbone or with your feet elevated or your torso leaned forward so your hips are bent at less than 90 degrees, is also in a lengthened position. Spending hours and hours in this position, with your hip flexors shortened and your glutes and low back muscles lengthened, can start to cause…...drum roll, please…...low back pain.
So what do you do if you sit all day for your job or for school? How do you avoid pain? Work to correct your muscular imbalances: Lengthen your shortened hip flexors through stretching and/or foam rolling and shorten your lengthened glutes and low back through strength training.
1. Release Tight Hip Flexors
SMR (Self-Myofascial Release) and Trigger Point Therapy are great ways to release tight, shortened muscles.
Foam Roll Hip Flexors
Start by lying facedown on the foam roller with the foam roller at your pubic bone. Roll over onto one hip so that you're pelvis is at about a 45 degree angle from the foam roller. Roll forward and back and side to side on the few inches between the top of your leg bone and your hip bone. Remember to stay on the soft tissue; don't roll on bone itself. If you find a tender spot, sit on it for 30-90 seconds and try to relax. Next, roll down the thigh, keeping the 45 degree angle with your hips. A lot of people will roll right on the side of their leg on a band of connective tissue called the IT band. It's more effective to get at the IT band by rolling the hip flexors and quad. Roll all the way from the hip to just above the knee and then back up. Figure out what spot is most tender, and sit on it for 30-90 seconds. You might have a few tender spots here or the entire length of the leg might be tender. Just find the worst spots and concentrate on them.
Hip Flexors Trigger Point Release
Lie down on your stomach, resting on your elbows, with an acumobility ball pressing against the soft tissue right below your ASIS (the protrusion of the hip bone). Move around until you find a tender spot, then put the opposite leg out to the side to support your angle on the ball. Inhale and create tension by tightening your fists, pressing your arms into the ground, and engaging your abs and glutes. (1) Hold that tension as you exhale hard, pulling your heel toward your glute on the working side. Inhale as you release. Repeat 3-5 times. (2) Next, bend your knee on the working side and exhale hard as you externally rotate your leg, pressing the outside of your ankle toward the floor. Inhale as you return to the start position. Repeat 3-5 times. (3) Finally, extend your leg and place your toes on the working side on the floor. Exhale hard as you straighten your knee. Inhale as you relax. Repeat 3-5 times.
2. Lengthen Your Hip Flexors
In addition to foam rolling, you can increase length in your hip flexors and psoas (a hip flexor that starts at the top of the femur and connects to the spine via the pelvis). Hold these stretches for at least 30 seconds after sitting all day or going for a long car ride. If it’s before your workout, choose the active version of the stretch (squeezing and releasing the glutes).
Half-Kneeling Hip Flexors Stretch
Get into a half-kneeling position with both knees at a 90 degree angle and your hips parallel to each other. Tuck your hips under by using your abs to pull your imaginary (or real) belt buckle toward your rib cage. Squeeze and release the glute on the kneeling side. If you're using your abs to keep your tailbone tucked, your hips shouldn't move back and forth as you squeeze and release. Instead, the stretch should deepen as you squeeze and relax as you release.
Half-Kneeling Psoas Stretch
Get into a half-kneeling position with both knees at a 90 degree angle and your hips parallel to each other. Tuck your hips under by using your abs to pull your imaginary (or real) belt buckle toward your rib cage. Squeeze the glute on the kneeling side and hold it. Reach your arm up on the kneeling side, twist your torso toward the wall on the kneeling side, and then dip back toward the opposite side. Breathe deeply and relax into the stretch.
3. Strengthen Your Glutes
To combat chronically lengthened glutes, strengthen the muscles in your glutes that extend your hips (gluteus maximus) and also the muscles that stabilize your femurs (gluteus medius).
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor and about shoulder-width apart. Find your neutral pelvis by placing the heels of your hands on your hip bones and your fingertips on your pubic bone. Adjust your low back until your pubic bone and hip bones are all in the same plane. Maintain that alignment as you press your heels into the ground, driving through your glutes to bring your hips off the ground. Without arching your lower back, try to completely straighten your hips so that they are directly between your knees and shoulders. Always, keep your ankles, knees, and hips in a line. Pause, squeezing your glutes, and then slowly lower back to the starting position.
Lateral Band walks
Start with your feet about 6 inches apart with a band around your ankles. Sit your hips back with your knees soft but not actively bending. Step one foot out 6 inches. Follow with the other foot so your feet land about 6 inches apart. Continue to move sideways for the desired number of reps, then reverse directions. Avoid dragging your feet or letting your toes turn out.
4. Strengthen Your Low Back
Finally, strengthening chronically lengthened low back muscles can also help you avoid pain. Note, these prone back extensions should always be done with little to no weight.
Lie on your stomach with your arms at your sides. Exhale and tighten your abs as you simultaneously lift your arms, legs, and chest off the floor. As you lift, your chest and thighs should leave the ground but your neck should stay neutral. You should feel the muscles throughout your back and your glutes. Inhale and relax as you lower down.
Lie on your stomach with your arms and legs extended. With an exhale engage your abs and reach one arm and the opposite leg up toward the ceiling. You'll want your thigh and chest to lift off the ground and your neck to stay neutral. Inhale as you release to the floor and exhale as you lift the other side. Make sure you're moving from the upper back and glutes rather than the elbows and knees.
This is the second installment in a series about preventing back pain. The first article was all about creating core stability through planks. If you missed it, you can read it here.
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