April 9th 2021
Why you're getting lower back pain - and 5 exercises that can help
October 20th 2020 / 0 comment
Photography by Andrew Burton
If you're struggling with lower back pain, don't be scared of movement - it's a key part of your rehab plan, says top personal trainer David Higgins. These are the exercises that he rates for getting your fitness goals back on track
According to recent stats, around one in seven GP appointments are for muscle and joint problems, with back pain believed to be Britain’s leading cause of disability. Back problems are becoming more and more common - but why? According to top personal trainer and author of The Hollywood Body Plan, David Higgins, it’s a symptom of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles – worsened by working from home and no walking to the office, we're sure.
“Our bodies are meant to move,” he tells me. “But because many of us have to sit down all day at work, they start to move in a compensatory way.” Our glute activation switches off, and the muscles at the front of our bodies become locked into unnaturally shortened positions. “It’s a recipe for disaster - we become strong in areas that shouldn’t be dominating our movement patterns, and really weak in our major primal support mechanisms.”
These imbalances cause us to become more prone to injury when we exercise, as our bodies start to move in ways that are at odds with their working day default. “The muscles at the front of our bodies contract and pull us forward, while the ones at the back (which are usually turned off) are forced to lengthen and go out of their natural state of position.” The result? Strain and pain in the neck and lower back.
When faced with this situation, many of us book in for a massage for some immediate relief. David warns that this won’t address the problem long-term though. “Stop chasing the pain around your body because it’s not the pain that’s the problem, the pain is the symptom,” he says. What’s needed instead is a plan of action to mitigate the ‘chronic stillness’ in our lives which our bodies just aren’t designed to cope with.
Movement is one of the foundations of David's treatment and prevention plan outlined in his book. For those with a lower back injury, that might sound like madness, but avoiding it could actually be making things worse. “Long gone are the days when you were told to rest if you were injured,” he says. “Back pain occurs because your body is effectively stuck in a position and you’re too afraid to move it out of it. This then gets ingrained into your movement patterns. Your muscles shorten and tighten because they’re protecting the area, but also because of lack of mobility, resulting in even more pain and discomfort.”
This is where rehabilitative exercises come in. “They get you to focus and move the area, which then builds strength and balance,” explains David. “It all starts with being aware and not being frightened to move. If you don’t move, it will get much worse, really quickly.”
Pushing through the fear is key, explains David. A mental hurdle that many (myself included) struggle with after experiencing an injury. “You will naturally go through flare-ups, but they’ll dissipate over time,” says David. “They’re inevitable if you’re trying to put movement back into something that you haven’t moved for a while.” He adds, “Either you’ve got to deal with a bit of short-term pain because you’re exercising the area to get strong and mobile again, or deal with worse pain long-term if you don’t.”
5 exercises that can help with your lower back pain
To help start you on the right track, David has shared five of his favourite exercises. They’re from the Floor Play Reboot routine in his book, a sequence that you can do in the mornings to loosen up your body for the day, or to release stiffness before you go to bed. “If someone is really broken and they’ve forgotten how to move, I start them on the floor,” says David. “That’s where we started when we were babies, after all. It’s the old, ‘You have to walk before you can run.’”
They can be done by anyone (although, it’s best to check in with your doctor or physiotherapist first if you’re already on a treatment plan). “Whether or not you’ve got sciatica, a pinched nerve, stenosis, or even a slipped disc, the symptom is the same for all of them - pain,” David explains. “Underlying each of those though is a movement problem, which is manifesting itself in a way that makes people too terrified to move out of because they’re worried about making it worse.”
He adds: “You’ve got to strip away all of the paraphernalia of what people say you can and can’t do. The most important thing is that your body starts to extend, flex and rotate. They are your three movement protocols. If your body can do those around its joints naturally, then you’re going to be fine.”
Exercise 1: Body roll
1. Lie down on the floor, face down, arms outstretched above your head. Keep your chin tucked in.
2. Roll over on to your back, making sure that your right arm leads the movement, opening the chest; your hips, torso, and legs should follow after.
3. Now that you are on your back, slowly lift and bend your left knee. Roll it across your body, allowing the hips to roll you over to return to the start position.
4. Now do this again except leading with your left arm. Once on your back, continue the roll by lifting and bending your right knee, rolling yourself over.
Do this body roll three to five times, going back and forth on the floor – this should take 50 seconds.
Exercise 2: Cat stretch
1. Starting on all fours, arch your back, pushing your chest to the ceiling. Your head should drop down towards the floor. Hold for 20 seconds.
2. Now sink your chest down to the floor – dropping the shoulders. Make sure you are doing this slowly. Your eyes should be looking straight ahead. Hold for 20 seconds.
Exercise 3: Pigeon stretch
1. Starting on all fours, straighten your right leg behind you, with your toes resting on the floor.
2. Bring your left leg forward in front of you, crossing it underneath your body so much of your weight is resting on the left leg. You should feel this in your left butt cheek.
The calf of your left leg should be at 90 degrees to your right leg. Make sure you remain slightly elevated - don’t sit down!
3. Sink down, with your elbows bent underneath your shoulders. Rock from side to side.
4. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds.
5. Switch positions and repeat with your left leg straightened and your right leg forward.
Exercise 4: Body rock
Get on to all fours and rock your body weight forward and backward for 20 seconds.
1. Starting on all fours, rest your bottom on the heels of your feet, with your arms reaching forward and your toes pointed behind you.
2. Drop your head and breathe.
3. Hold for 10 seconds.
If your arms feel too tight, you can bend your elbows.
To check that you're doing the exercises correctly, watch David's Instagram video below.
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Exercises extracted from The Hollywood Body Plan by David Higgins (£25, Headline), out now. Buy your copy here for more advice and rehab tips. Photography by Andrew Burton.