The content of this post applies to both lower back pain, and piriformis syndrome.
Does this sound about right?…
Stretching has been a big part of your lower back pain treatment plan. It definitely provides relief especially after long days of sitting or standing. However, it never lasts long.
A few minutes after, you have to stretch again. When you have flare-ups, stretching makes things worse. It’s very frustrating because it’s supposed to help, but it doesn’t all the time. So you are not sure if you’re overdoing it or not doing it enough”.
If this sound like anything you are wondering about right now, let me tell you, it’s perfectly normal to be confused. We get little to no education about stretching. The physio prints a black and white document with images of stretches to do, and we are sent home until the next session!
I’ve talked a lot about smart stretching before, and I want to share with you a video I made about this. But before I do, I want to take a moment to explain something I feel will make a huge difference in how you approach stretching. Once you understand this, you won’t look at stretching the same way again.
If you have noticed that some of your lower back stretches – that you’ve been prescribed (or found on the internet) – are either not working, or making things worse, please keep reading. Also, and save this post for future reference as well if you can’t fully read it today.
Why Your Lower Back Pain Stretches are Not Working?
We can almost never isolate the body. When you are experiencing aches, pains and weaknesses in one area of your body, know that all the other parts are connected and will respond in a certain way. This process of compensation is normal because the body is an intelligent machine and everything is connected.
Say you live a sedentary lifestyle and rarely exercise. Chances are you’ll have a weak core and dormant glutes. Sitting for too long shuts the glutes off immediately. As you never work to strengthen the glutes, the body will adapt to this and will respond in a certain way to prevent injury the next time you are required to make a move under stress.
So the next time you perform a task that requires your glutes and core to work together (lift heavy groceries off the floor), your body will “lock” some joints to protect your lower back as it kicks in to get the job done. Let me explain further why your body will lock joints to prevent injury (and create more tightness as a result).
Understanding mobility and stability of the joints
The joints in our bodies are all working in synch. Some joints like your shoulders need to be more mobile (move more freely), while others need more stability (the low back area, elbow, and knees).
What you will notice is that these joints will alternate in movement as we move up from one joint the next: Ankle (needs more mob.)- Knees (stability) – Hips (mobility) – Lower back (stability)
Strong core and glutes are going to stabilize your lower back and also take the load off the knees. What happens when we are stretching all the time?: No stability, and too much mobility. Everywhere. The body is out of balance and the process of compensation is in play all the time.
Putting it all together
So the next time you go do something that requires lifting items off the floor, cleaning or even walking with heavy groceries, you will start noticing more tightness in your hips.
Here is why: your core and glutes are off. Your body is trying to prevent injury (all it cares about at this time is survival), so it will go into compensation mode. It does this by locking the upper joint and the lower joints – in this case, the hips, and the upper back – to provide some stability to the lower back.
Because the hips and the upper back are not meant to be “locked”, you’ll start getting muscle tightness, and pain.
The muscles themselves are simply trying to prevent injury to create that stability that is lacking in the first place (they are covering up for the glutes and core). This is where the more you stretch, the tighter you get. And it feels like the body is fighting with you.
This is a trend that goes on in our bodies all the time, and what do we do? we stretch, even more, creating even more imbalances, and more weaknesses.
Whenever I feel tightness somewhere, I always ask myself the following questions:
- Is this from a workout I just did? – then it’s normal tightness that should go away with some gentle stretching, and recovery. I use the massage ball after my workouts to target knots and tightness. I like the ball because It release the knots and I don’t have to stretch (great if you work in an office and don’t have space to stretch)
- How has my posture been in the past few days? – too much sitting will shut off your glutes and core and round your shoulders. This creates a huge list of weaknesses in the body and a lot of compensation. Tightness is almost always originating from bad posture.
- How is the rest of my body feeling? when was last time I scheduled stretching or foam rolling?. I personally tend to do more strengthening workouts, so I always need to remind myself to stretch to balance things out. As a note here, I always had more pain from over-stretching than over strengthening. It was until I reduced stretching that I started getting better (my personal experience).
- How is my mental wellbeing? am I too stressed out lately? – please check out my blog post on the mind-body connection. Stress can affect every single area of the body including your muscles. Don’t underestimate what it can do to your body (I have a whole video planned on this on Youtube next week)
It’s unfortunate how little education people get about smart stretching, and how to use it in a way that benefits your body. I recently had two questions inside the facebook group about this topic where two members were experiencing more pain when stretching before their workouts. I answer both questions in the video below.
Are You Stretching Too Much Video Q&A
Intelligent stretching: Check out this great post from Paul Chek’s blog about how to stretch intelligently, and which muscles have a tendency to get weak and loose (need more strengthening) vs the ones that tend to get more tight. When you strengthen a muscle that needs more strengthening, it will stabilize the joint linked to it. This is why schedule core and glute strengthening will help protect your spine and avoid having your upper body and hips locked during compensation.
I also want to include some short videos to help you correct your current stretches. If you are doing your stretches wrong, you won’t notice much of a difference.
Correct the Hip Flexor Stretch
Correct the Hamstring Stretch
That’s it for today! I’ve been wanting to write a post about stretching for so long now. I’ll keep updating this post as I go so that it’s a good resource for everyone to go back to. IIf you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. Thank you for being on the blog, and I hope you learned something valuable today!.
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