Before talking about a tight lower back, it may be best to answer the question:
Where is the lower back?
This is a lovely clear picture of the lower back. You can see the intervertebral discs in grey and the bones in between. Working down from the top we have the 12th Thoracic vertebra (that is the 12th out of 12) and below it, the Lumbar vertebrae from 1 to 5.
The lumbar spine goes right up towards the ribs and you can see the bottom rib in the picture and the bottom vertebra is roughly level with the top of the pelvis at the bottom.
It is not the focus of this article but what this picture also shows, is the close relationship of the lower back with the Ilipsoas muscle shown here running from the thigh bone across the inside of the pelvis and crucially flowing up and onto all of the lumbar vertebrae. For a supple, flexible lower back you need flexible thigh muscles.
For more detail about the lower back muscles, bones, nerves etc read an earlier blog post: https://www.pilates-leeds.com/five-things-you-really-need-to-know-about-your-lower-back/
Why does the lower back get tight?
You might well ask! There are a lot of reasons and I’m going to concentrate on the common ones that many of us share.
Common causes are:
- The bones get stiff with lack of movement
- Tight muscles – often due to postural issues and/or too much sitting. They might be tight due to weakness elsewhere or poorly executed strength training
- Degenerative changes in the discs and bones with the wear and tear of ageing or due to overuse or misalignment.
In addition, there are far less common, specific spinal conditions which cause a stiff lower back. For example, Scoliosis and Ankylosing Spondilisis. These need to be diagnosed and receive specialist treatment as well as on- going exercise therapy.
This is a real can of worms with many different causes, so the aim here is simply to suggest exercises that are a safe bet for most of us.
Although these are gentle exercises, nevertheless, if you have a diagnosed back problem, check with your therapist which sort of exercises are safe for you and potentially effective. If you attend a regular Pilates class, maybe ask the Instructor to go over the exercise in class – for extra insight and assistance.
The pain question.
Stiffness in the back is related, but different to having a painful back. Alleviating back pain may need a different approach. If your pain is on-going then see your GP who might refer you to a Physiotherapist, or, take the plunge yourself and find a Physio, Chiropractor or Osteopath. Having said that some people find that gentle mobility work does help back aches and pains.
So why is your lower back tight Alison?
Since leaving school in 1985 I’ve had various jobs and been in Higher Education too. I have been teaching exercise classes for nearly 16 years. I have also had time in desk based jobs and was in full then part time office admin for 8 years from 1998 – 2008 with 2 years Maternity leave.
Due in large part to the pregnancies and child birth I have a Diastasis Recti (DR). This is a separation in the muscles around my tummy button. The gap is 2½ fingers width. It was probably made worse after my second child by doing too much exercise involving the abdominals. I was not attempting to cure the DR, it is more that my job involved teaching Bums,Legs&Tums and other toning classes that involved me doing unhelpful things like too many strong ab exercises. The outcome of the DR is that I have a permanent instability (and small hernia) in my tummy area which causes all the other muscles to become tighter in an effort to stabilise my trunk. That includes the back. It is tight in an effort to compensate for weakness at the front.
In addition I also have tight hips and a tendency to let the pelvis tip forwards. The upshot of this is a tight, over arched lower back. So what came first? Tight hips pulling the pelvis down, or, weak abdominals due to the DR, allowing the pelvis to drop down? Or was my back always tight? Who knows? However, my sister and my mother don’t have my postural changes, implying that I didn’t inherit it or learn it.
There is something of a family of chicken and eggs here and who knows what came first or what else I may have done that has contributed to my tight lower back.
One thing I do know though, is that this is a classic example of a situation which requires a whole body solution. There are other things too. Could my breathing be a bit inefficient and causing a problem? I go running once or twice a week – is this good or bad? Do muscular changes post menopause signify?
What can I do about it?
I could have my DR surgically treated but I doubt I’d get NHS treatment and I’m not desperate enough to want to pay for it myself. I work on stretching out my hips – I do my best with this but they get tight with cycling. I could do ultra gentle ab work to help knit back the abs, but I’m caught in a situation where my job is demands that I perform (at least occasionally) exercises that are contraindicated for people with my diagnosis. I do gentle mobility work to keep the back moving but probably not enough.
I am mindful of my body alignment and try to ensure that my pelvis is neutral in sitting and standing. Neutral pelvis is fantastic for keeping the natural curve of the spine and “ironing out” tightness. Mind you, I see myself in mirrors and often its sneaked back to the forward tilt position.
Finally, I’m considering regular back massage to keep the muscles more supple. This is a new venture for me and I’m going to see what the masseur suggests as maintenance, but I suspect, rolling on spiky balls and foam rollers.
- Knee Rolls, Knee Hugs and Knee Hug Circles
- Baby Shoulder Bridge, that is, just the first part of the exercise. Better still Baby Shoulder Bridge against a wall.
- Cat Stretch and Crouch Backwards Cat Stretch +/-a Side Bend from the Crouch
- Roll Down from a Wall
- Spiky Ball Self Massage.
The focus here is to mobilise, stretch, release.
By mobilise I mean to get the spine moving more – snaking side to side, arching front to back.
The idea of stretching is more obvious – to lengthen out the muscles, and specifically the ones that go up the side of the back and attach onto the pelvis
Release work is self massage. By gently massaging, or rubbing or pressing into the muscles you can stimulate them to “give out”, lengthen and relax.
The focus is not strength, either core strength or back strength. Why ? Tightness in the lower back will reduce core stability because you have to overcome that tightness in order to become more stable. The aim here is to relax the back in order to better maintain core strength and more easily maintain a neutral pelvis at rest. In addition a more supple back can also enable the gluteal muscles of the bottom to function more efficiently. Overall strength is good – really beneficial, simply not the focus of this article.
A few that didn’t make the cut
Seated back stretch – potentially great but sitting on the floor is a challenging position for many people and can cause discomfort and strain. This can be dealt with by modification though
Full Roll Down – too often the tight lower back is bypassed in favour of movement at the hips.
Lying on your tummy and reverse curling the spine. Whilst this (spine extension) is a vitally important movement, it is a tricky one to perform well and lends itself better to being taught, guided and corrected by an instructor. There is spine extension in the Cat Stretch (number 3 in the list)