You’ve probably heard from your personal trainer or other movement specialist, that too much sitting is not good for you, and you should therefore stand up sometimes and stretch or walk around. But do you know exactly how sitting can cause you lower back pain, and what you can do to prevent it?
Most of us have faced the issue of sitting in front of a monitor for many hours, or taking a long-haul flight or car journey, while feeling stiff and painful in the lower back area. Even personal trainers can struggle from lower back pain, despite living a healthy lifestyle. But before we explore one of the most common causes of lower back pain, we need to understand some of the basic characteristics of our muscles.
Muscles are extremely good at adapting to whatever happens to them: you lift weights, they’ll get bigger; you don’t use them, they’ll get weaker; you stretch them, they’ll lengthen. The main purpose of muscles, however, is to make our movements possible. By crossing joints, they pull our bones in order to create movement, and help us maintain our postures. Without muscles, we couldn’t even lift one finger, or even simply stand on our feet. A desirable characteristic of muscles is that they have optimal length. If every muscle has optimal length in a person’s body, the person is more likely to have an ideal posture, as the muscles would optimally align all their joints across their body. Changing muscle length affects this alignment, and will result in altered joint motion and postural dysfunction, often an indicator of future injuries or decreased performance.
As a personal trainer in Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur, I often have clients who complain about lower back pain. When we go through some lifestyle questions, I often find that they have an office or other sedentary job. When people sit for extended periods of time, their muscles will eventually adapt to a sitting posture. This technically means that their hip flexor muscles (e.g. psoas, iliacus, TFL, etc.) are held in a shortened position for an extended period of time, while the hip extensor muscles on the other side of the hip joint (glutes, hamstrings, etc) will be lengthened. As we already know that our muscles will adapt to whatever changes we put them through most frequently, the above mentioned muscles will often be ‘adaptively shortened’ or ‘adaptively lengthened’. This will in turn change the optimal alignment of the hip joint, easily resulting in lower back pain through the anterior tilt of your pelvis, putting extra pressure on your lower back.
So, what can you do to prevent this pain? Foam rolling both your TFL and quads is a good starting point, followed by the static stretching of your hip flexor muscles. During personal training sessions we call this part the ‘releasing and lengthening of the short and overactive muscles’. However, it is also important to address the other side of the hip joint – the glutes. If they are too long or underactive, rather than stretching them we want to activate them and make them stronger. Do some side leg raises with a wall push, hip thrusts on a stability ball or bridges to fire up those glutes before your main workout. By doing these stretches and exercises you will restore your optimal range of motion at the hip joint, which in turn will likely not only decrease your lower back pain significantly but also improve your posture and performance on a long term basis, helping you prevent future injuries.