Muscles Never Push: the Lowdown on Back Stretches
Chronic lower back stiffness: that supposed part of aging that becomes annoyingly obvious when standing up after sitting for awhile...
The ideal stretching routine nags you. Or maybe you have been yoga-ing for awhile, but the pain is still there, part of life. So you keep stretching those hamstrings, dutifully. One Day, you'll plant a kiss on your own feet!
Well, you can certainly try, but you might not be stretching the muscle that is really affecting your lower back! Muscles don't push. They pull.
Take a look at this bridge.
If the steel frame is your spine, and the cables, your muscles: which cables pitch the majority of frame forward? (Hint: the ones on the right.)
Sure, if I pulled those converging bunches of cables on the left, further away, the slack will tauten. But, no matter how much I pull the ends of these cables away from the frame, I am not going to change the fact that I am simply not going to out-leverage the pull that the cables on the top right have.
All attachments at the frame groan (maybe even pop). However, the frame itself, will begin to tip more forward!
Those ones on the left, they're the hamstrings plus a few large lower back muscles. The cables on the right? They're a few of your hip flexors on front of your spine and hips!
Do you sit a lot?
Stand-up, sideways in front of a mirror. Close your eyes, settle into comfort. Now, open 'em. Look through your belly.
Does your lower back sag forward at all? Is your lower tailbone rocked up, even slightly? Or are you a former ballerina or millitary professional and your spine is dead flat?
If not, and you sit tons, and your low back is cranky, you may have some hyperlordosis.
The Science of Hyperlordosis
There's a normal gentle forward curve in the lower spine. [Hyper] Lordosis is a term that refers to more than the normal curve, a sag forward appearance.
In a clinical study, the lengths of different muscles were measured in standing.
Results concluded that “…hamstring length index was negatively correlated with lordosis” (1)
Short hamstrings are not associated with a forward curve of the lower spine.
So why the heck are we all about stretching the hamstrings?
Core strengthening: good; lovely abs. However, mixed in with pilates and other posture programs are exercises that strengthen, and shorten, already shortened hip flexors. (Leg-up-sit-ups, hip flexes, lunges).
The Journal of Physical Therapy Science reports that: "Strengthening iliopsoas and rectus femoris improved low back pain in a flat back posture, not a lordotic curve or anterior pelvic tilt." (2) Flat back: ballerinas, military personnel. Probably not you.
Are these exercises bad? Not at all. Good for improving lower back ache that is accompanied by hyperlordosis? Notsomuch! Once the hyperlordosis is stabilized, then maybe!
But why is the lower back sore, knotty, crunchy,
if it's not the real problem?
Muscles never push. If you've got hyperlordosis, your lower vertebrae are being pulled forward by shortened muscles in the front. Spinal joints now get pinchy, twingey, spazzy.
Your hamstrings are like black plastic bags. You stretch opposing ends out past a certain point, the plastic will become more translucent until it tears, under sustained load, or under an additional sudden force. There was elastic give, but at a point of strain there were plastic changes.
Elongated, taut hamstrings, beyond of their normal lengths ("tight" feeling, but not truly short), are vulnerable to microtears. Under continued plastic strain, messy tangles of collagen form. This fibrosis feels like a "crunchy" knot, often near your "sit" bones.
These plastically weakened muscle fibres may have less elastic rebound strength, so they allow the tight cables in the front of your body to win. Trigger Points in the back, can send painful messages while half-baked micro-contractions try to keep the frame from falling forward.
If you continue to stretch and lengthen these taut, thinned hamstrings, your good intentions for your lower back ache may be in vain. Stretch the muscle that is pulling, the one silently winning.
There's no medal for kissing your own feet! Lay off the hamstrings for a bit! Elongate what is short, what is truly pulling, your hip flexors in the front, because muscles never push!
"Stretch the muscle that is pulling, the short one,
the one silently winning."
©️Lana Brown, written content. References cited below. Photos by Wix or Bigstock.
(1) The interrelation of spinal curves, pelvic til and muscle lengths in the adolescent female. Toppenberg RM & Bullock MI. The Australian Journal of Physiotherapy. Australian Physiotherapy Association.ISSN: 00049514
(2) Effect of Individual Strentghening Exercises for Anterior Pelvic Tilt Muscles on Back Pain, Pelvic Angle, and Lumbar ROMs of LBP Patient with Flat Back. Won-Gyu Yoo. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. ISSN: 0915-5287. MEDLINE NLM UID: 9105359