8 out of 10 Americans will have back pain at some point during their lives, and it sucks. I
had debilitating back pain in my early 20’s, and it sucked to be 21 and
be unable to lay down or sit up without excruciating pain. Since
80% of adults have back pain, this is an important area of study as a
personal trainer, and here are the 3 most common back pain myths we’ve
seen over the past 22 years:
Myth #1: You should loosen up your lower back.
Fact #1: Mobilizing your lower back is exactly the opposite of what it needs. Our lower backs need stability not mobility. This stability is provided by the muscles in our core. Mobilizing or stretching your lower back – especially rotation – may feel good immediately, but it is ultimately unsafe and harmful. Here’s a good breakdown on why rotation and other lower back “stretches” are actually dangerous.
What to do: You can think of your lower back as the innocent bystander caught int the crossfire between your hips and midback. Our hips are designed to be mobile and powerful, and as they get weak and stiff (like from sitting) our lower backs compensate and complain for the extra work they’re doing.
Our midback (thoracic spine – the big area between your lower back and neck) is designed to be mobile. As
our midbacks get stiff (like with sitting and hunching over
smartphones, etc.) our lower backs compensate and complain for the extra
work they’re doing.
Lastly, as our core muscles get weaker and/or less coordinated (as they do from sitting) they can’t do their job very well and our backs complain. To protect your back focus on creating and strong and mobile lower body (one of the many reasons we love split squats and step ups!), a mobile midback and a stable core. Here’s a great way to get started with safe and time efficient mobility for your midback and hips.
Myth #2: Rest is best.
Fact #2: One of the most common myths is that when your back hurts it is wise to take several days or weeks to be as sedentary as possible. When I write it like this the flaw in this logic usually pops out, but this is exactly what “bed rest” is. Our bodies adapt to inactivity at light speed. Every organ system in your body is harmed by bedrest or something close to it.
Motion is lotion. If your back pain is from an acute injury your body needs (pain free) movement to facilitate healing. Our cardiovascular and lymphatic systems are crucial for delivering the nutrients needed for healing, and these systems require movement to do their jobs. Days or weeks of low activity will create the very weakness and stiffness and makes back pain more likely.
What to do: do as much pain-free movement as you can. Pain-free is crucial. Pain-free is not the same as “it doesn’t hurt that bad.” Walking,
Myth #3: Crunches help reduce back pain.
Fact #3: We don’t do any crunches at T180 because they’re dangerous. Exercises that bend or rotate your lower back (like situps, crunches, Russian twists, etc.) create the ideal conditions for herniating the discs in your spine. Herniation is when the disc pops, and the insides leak out causing incredible pain and potential nerve damage. Research and text books on these facts have been publicly available for nearly 20 years.
What to do: as we established in #1, it is core stability that protects our lower backs. Stability, for our purpose, is your body’s ability to resist perturbation. In other words core stability is the ability of your core muscles to hold your spine in place in the presence of some outside force – gravity, groceries, etc. Crunches and sit ups involve bending your lower back over and over again, and this is exactly the opposite of what will keep your back heathy.
Here are great exercises to start with here and here.