If you’re like most people, you probably don’t want to develop back pain as you get older. And if you already have back pain you probably want to get rid of it and reduce the likelihood of it ever coming back.
I personally fall into the latter category and developed really poor movement patterns which ultimately resulted in me injuring my lower back while training Brazilian jiu jitsu. For those who don’t know BJJ is a martial art which consists of having another human force you into a pretzel by twisting around your joints.
My path to spinal rehabilitation required me to unlearn years of terrible movement mechanics, and re-learn how to properly incorporate hip mobility and flexibility after years of sitting. As a reference, my original posture was a combination of the hollow back (posture #2) while standing and slouching (posture #4) while sitting.
For me, as is the case with most people these days, my spine became mangled after years of decrepitly hunching over my computer. Prolonged sitting basically screwed over my hips ability to move naturally due to tightening of various muscles in the hip and weakening large supporting muscles groups.
And since your hips are basically the foundation on which your spine sits, if your hips are broken, so is your posture. For most busy professionals, straightening your spine is all about restoring movement in your hips, specifically your hip mobility and flexibility.
To quote Shakira, Hips Don’t Lie.
How to figure out if your hips are not properly moving
Diagnostic move #1: The almighty squat
Ahh the squat. The oracle of movement, the looking-glass which reveals all flaws, and the crystal ball into which we see if you’re destined for power or frailty.
I have a love/hate relationship with the squat. It’s one of the most fundamental of all human movements one in which we’re born into perfect form and age into disarray. I hate it because I suck at it, while by comparison, this child has the perfect squat. Unfair.
In an ideal world, all of your squat attempts should look like squat of the child above. But given how unkind the world can be, there’s probably several faults you may have in your squat.
First, keep your shins as vertical as possible. Your shins should be close to vertical instead of leaning forward over your feet. This is happening to you because you (1) likely lack the motor control and strength to perform the squat and/or (2) you have really tight thighs and hips.
Second, you shouldn’t be overextending your spine. (Sometimes referred to as stripper butt.) This is happening is because (1) your trunk and abs are not strong enough to stabilize your spine in relation to your pelvis and/or (2) the front of your hips and quads are too tight.
Your knees shouldn’t be collapse inward. (1) You’re not strong enough to drive your knees out, or (2) your hips are too tight and you’re unable to create room to push your thighs out.
Your feet rotate out too much. Some people will do this during their squat. It effectively puts your knees into a collapsed inward position as well. This is usually a result of people lacking mobility in their ankle and calf. Also, it happens for the same reasons as the collapsed inward knees.
These are just a couple of the major faults that may be visible when attempting to squat. The forces acting on your hips are varied and complex. There’s a lot going on so it’s always helpful to review the pieces that are at play here.
Diagnostic move #2: The long-sit
The long sit is pretty straight forward. You’ll need a mirror in order to see yourself for diagnostic purposes.
Position yourself by sitting on the floor, straightening out your legs, and flexing your toes up. Now as you lean forward to touch your toes, observe whether your pelvis is rotating forward and lined up with your spine. What you don’t want is for your pelvis to be stuck in place causing you to round your spine in order to reach your toes.
For most people, your hamstrings are going to be really tight and prevent your hips from properly rotating forward allowing you to keep your spine stabilized and straight
Diagnostic move #3: Cross-legged sitting
Crossed legged sitting or “Indian style” sitting reveals additional mobility challenges in the hips range of motion. Noticeably you should target being able to get your knees low to the ground. If you’re missing this range of motion your knees will be pointing up towards the sky at a 45-degree angle to the floor.
Diagnostic move #4: Knee to the chest
For the knee to chest stretch, you want to lie flat your back. You should flatten the arch in your back while lifting one knee up to your chest.
You should be able to do this motion while keeping your opposite leg down on the floor. You’ll know you’re lacking this range of motion if you can’t raise one leg without the other leg coming along for the ride.
This inability to independently move your hips can arise from multiple things including hamstring tightness, tightness in the front of the hips, or impingement in the hip joints.
What is causing my hip tightness?
The easy answer is that we sit too much, and when we do sit, we often sit in the wrong positions. Our bodies are meant to be in motion and given the increasing amount of time we spend seated we’re seeing our bodies adapt in 2 ways. The first issue is that certain muscles become overused and tighten, this usually happens to muscle groups responsible for bending at your hips.
The second issue is that other muscles become weak and stop firing, this usually happens to muscles that are responsible for extending your legs backward. These two factors combined turn impacts the way your hip positions itself and consequently the way your spine sits on top of your pelvis.
While sitting properly will help, it’s not the solution. And neither is standing, in fact, constant standing can be problematic as well. So what can we do to improve all of this?
Sorry to disappoint but I don’t have a silver bullet for you. Getting your hip and spine health back to tip top shape is going to require movement and smashing with your torture device of choice (a foam roller or lacrosse ball).
How do I fix my hips?
You’re missing some hip range of motion. Great. I personally find it helpful to visualize the components of my body that are misbehaving. I promise I’ll keep the anatomy lesson short.
How do you stretch your hip flexors when they’re tight?
If you’ve been following along this article, you’ll probably guess the most obvious culprit behind your inability to move your hips properly. It’s obviously the muscles around your hips. Specifically the.
- The Psoas which is responsible for helping you stand up right. The Psoas connects your hip to your lumbar (lower) spine.
- The Iliacus which also has similar responsibilities Psoas is attached at your pelvic crest. Together often referred to as the Illiopsoas.
- The TFL (tensor fascia latae) located on the outside of the hips. The TFL often becomes wound up which causes pain when going deep into a squat and can lead to knee problems.
The couch stretch. I won’t lie to you, this stretch is notorious for the amount of pain it causes. This is especially bad if you sit at a computer all day.
However, I do promise you that it’s one of the best hip openers that you can do. You can forego the aforementioned couch when moving into this hip opener but hey who doesn’t like increasing their range of motion while watching TV. Do this bad boy for 2 minutes per side.
Foam roll or lacrosse ball your TFL. If you have weak glutes, your TFL is probably working on overdrive to stabilize your knee. Give your TFL muscle some love by rolling around on a foam roller or lacrosse ball. I personally prefer the lacrosse ball since it can really dig in there. You’ll know you’ve found it when you hit a very tender and achy spot.
You don’t need to be moving around that much. Once you’ve found it, just stay there for a couple of seconds, take deep breaths and relax. You don’t want to flex your muscles since you want to make sure you get really deep into the muscle tissue.
If you start to feel like the tenderness has subsided feel free to gently move around to see if you can find tight areas either right above or right below the initially tender area.
How do you stretch your thighs when they’re tight?
One of the most muscular parts of your body. We work the legs hard through standing, walking, running, squatting, and jumping. Then after all that work, we just sit on them for over 8 hours a day.
This effectively causes the muscles to contract and shorten, particularly in the hamstrings. It’s no wonder they often suffer from an insane amount of tightness.
If you’ve ever foam rolled your legs properly you’ll know, and possibly love, the excruciating pain that comes from smashing your tight upper leg muscles against the deceptively evil foam tube.
Here are some of my favorite ways to increase the range of motion for the quads and the hamstrings.
Lacrosse ball the hamstrings
Foam roll the quads
How to activate your glutes when they’ve stopped firing?
Your glutes have an immense impact when it comes to your hips and mobility. The glutes consist of multiple muscles including gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus which together form a very powerful muscle group in your body that often goes unused in most deskbound people.
The issue with we all have is that these muscles become completely inactive and, as a result, cause other smaller muscle groups (like the TFL) to pick up the slack. This is especially the case if you sit a lot.
Learning how to fire your glutes will help you unlock your athletic potential by waking up this sleeping beast muscle.
Glute bridges my personal favorite (I do one leg to exhaust myself) – I recommend striving for 20x each side
Find your stride with dog fire hydrants (20x each side)
Do some clamshells (20x each side)
Yes, you might feel a bit ridiculous doing these exercise based on how simple they are but if you have weak glutes these can be brutal. These are my favorite exercises for activating the glutes.
You don’t need weights on these. In fact using your body weight for these exercises are often more effective than loading up for squats or deadlifts or other types of barbell training when focusing in on the glutes.
How to strengthen your deep core muscles? And what is the multifidus?
Poor hip motion can result in weakness in the multifidus or “deep core” muscles. This is basically a super neglected muscle that’s holding your spine in a stable position. The multifidus is a small muscle that’s connected to the vertebrae and is recruited in any motion requires bending forward, backward, and side to side.
Most importantly these muscles are recruited to prevent spinal injury so strengthening them should be a priority when it comes to preventing back pain.
Bird dogs (20x each side)
In summary how to keep your spine straight and locked into position
Your hips form the foundation for your spine and it basically sets the angle starting with your sacrum (lower spine). Your hips basically tilt back and forth and that consequently causes your spine to move. If you lack mobility in certain positions like standing, sitting. Your pelvic tilt can cause your spine to curve in a way that’s not meant to carry weight which will cause long term pain.
- Be aware that your hips are the foundation for your spine
- Do some diagnostic movements to see if your hips have proper range of motion
- Check out your squat form
- See if you can sit with your legs straight in front of you
- Check if you can sit cross-legged
- See if you can raise your knees to your chest
- If you have any limitations in range of motion from the diagnostic movements do some of the following stretches, myofascial release techniques, and exercises to strengthen your body
- Loosen your hips
- Couch opener stretch
- Foam roll/lacrosse ball roll your TFL
- Loosen your upper legs
- Foam roll/lacrosse ball your quads
- Foam roll/lacrosse ball your hamstrings
- Strengthen your glutes
- Glute bridge exercise
- Dog and fire hydrant exercise
- Clamshell exercise
- Strengthen your deep core muscles
- Bird dog exercise
- Loosen your hips