9 hip stretches to alleviate back pain and piriformis syndrome

I often talk about “over-stretching” as our first direct reflex to back spasms and pain, and how we can use stretching more wisely to get all the good benefits without causing more damage. I’ve engaged in many conversations, and emails with the community about this topic, and I have to say that it does cause confusion since we’ve been conditioned to stretch every time we experience uncomfortable pain.

 

After years of struggling with back pain and piriformis syndrome, I also developed the habit of stretching all the time – also referred to as “stretchinitis” – yup, totally made that one up!

I did it in the a.m, before driving, after driving, every break at work, when I got home and before bed.  I felt relief during the stretch, and perhaps a minute after.  I can’t deny that my hamstrings and hips always felt tight (which made stretching a logical thing), but the pain would come back the next minute, which made me stretch again..and the cycle continues.



 

ENOUGH WAS ENOUGH

I spent years stretching without really going anywhere. My life revolved around the pain, and the urgency of stretching everywhere/anywhere.  My hips were getting tighter, and I felt like I was not moving forward at all with my recovery. One thing was for sure. I sure was doing the same thing over and over again

 

The definition of insanity – according to Einstein – is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results

 

Something had to change. I stopped stretching (although not entirely), and started strengthening.  I only stretched once a day after long hours of sitting, or before bed.  I started strengthening my hips and glutes one a day in the morning.

 

My healing journey did not stop there, but that was the beginning of a new phase for me.  I honestly felt like I was identifying stretching with back pain and the more I did it, the more pain I got.  After a few weeks of strengthening, I regain confidence in my body, and noticeable results followed. I also got rid of many toys I used to help stabilize my pelvic area (all the cushions, the pillows, and the belts). I’m not suggesting you throw away all your back pain gadgets, but there will come a time when you are ready to live without those.


 Understanding stretching

Without getting into body mechanics, and the science of stretching, I want to highlight a few points here,  so that you can stretch wisely next time you feel the urge to do it.

Stretching affects two types of muscles: tonic and phasic. It’s important to understand how each of these muscles work to get the most out of your stretching.

Tonic muscles: made of at least 51% slow-twitch muscle fibers and are more resistant to fatigue.  When over-used or underused, these muscles tend to tighten and shorten. For example, the iliopsoas muscle.

Phasic muscles: made of at least 51% fast-twitch muscle fibers (explosive) and fatigue easily compared to the tonic muscles. They react differently than tonic muscles when not used properly by becoming weak and long.  The gluteal muscles are primarily phasic muscles.

 

When we stretch all of our muscles without taking into account the fact that not all of them need stretching, we risk stretching the wrong muscles and causing even more lengthening of certain phasic muscles.  You probably have felt this at some point if:

  • After completing your stretching, your hips felt more loose and unstable.
  • Felt, even more, tighter shortly after your stretching routine.

This initiates a series of muscle imbalances, risk of injuries and chronic pain.

The same applies to exercise and focusing on certain muscles that are already tight and need some form of release, through foam rolling and stretching.

 

A more effective way of stretching is to simply test the muscles, and if they don’t feel tight, don’t stretch them! A great resource I want to suggest that takes this to a whole new level and shows you a way of testing each muscle and correcting muscle imbalances is the book How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! by Paul Chek.


9 hip stretches to alleviate lower back pain and piriformis syndrome

Now that I’ve talked more about why mindless, over-stretching may not be helping you accelerate healing, I want to introduce 9 hip stretches to alleviate back pain and piriformis syndrome, when stretching IS NEEDED!

So when you determine that a certain muscle is tight, and needs to be stretched, you can proceed to perform stretching with caution of course and without overdoing it.

I suggest picking up 1-3 stretches from the video that target different hip muscles and perform them either after your workouts or before bed. If you spend a lot of your day hours sitting at your desk (who isn’t, really) I suggest you watch this video, or the related blog post here first to start strengthening the phasic muscles that tend to get long and weak after prolonged periods of sitting, and then stretch as needed.

 

PS: My first signature program back pain bootcamp is OPEN for enrollment. This is not your typical fitness program, but something unique that’ll not only help you strengthen your deep core and glutes but help you exercise safely at home.

  • Hi there. What starting modifications would you recommend (for your lower back/pirformis stretches) for a person less flexible and somewhat larger than yourself?

    • Hi Vanessa! To start, I would suggest the seated stretch which doesn’t require great flexibility. The next great stretch would be #4 in the video, where you get on your back and get your leg towards you. I don’t stretch too often to be honest. I have found that deep tissue release using a massage ball or foam roller gives better benefits. As I stated in the post, stretching would generally not “solve” the back pain or piriformis problem but only provide temporary relief.
      Quick tip: I’ve used a tennis ball against the wall to release the piriformis muscle and it works like magic!

  • It was like reading about myself, finally after all these years & money wasted on drs guessing I have found someone like myself. Cant wait to do these exercises i already do a few of them.

    • Hi Serena! I’m glad this post resonated with you! Yess it’s soo frustrating when we get stuck in the medical system, and get no results. Definitely, check out the blog, there are SO many posts fir exercises, and treatments in general. I wish you all the best in your healing journey 🙂

  • Hi Sofia,

    Thank you! These are not easy but we’re very helpful for someone like me. Not very flexible and I’m an amputee about the knee who was recently diagnosed with sciatica.

    • You’re very welcome! please be gentle with the stretches. Don’t do ALL of them, these were just a list of all the stretches so just pick 2-3 to start with for now! All the best 🙂

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