Back pain happens to almost everyone at some point in their life and it’s one of the most common injuries at any gym. Maybe it was a heavy squat or deadlift, something lighter —with more repetitions— or something as simple as bending over post-workout to pick up your log book or tie your shoe.
The average human being, in our sitting society, goes through anywhere from three to five thousand flexions of the spine a day and with that excessive flexion comes micro-tears. Progressively over time, those tears can worsen and push out some of the inner jelly-like material in your discs, which can cause a lot of inflammation, pain and other serious issues.
If you’ve tweaked your back (and don’t have a history of back issues) there’s a few, simple things you can immediately do to help speed up the recovery process.
“The very first thing you should do when you hurt your back is to lie flat on your stomach for 5-10 minutes to get you in a quasi-extended position,” said Dr. Steve Sudell, the founder of Prehab to Perform, who has trained pro baseball, football and basketball players as well as American Open weightlifters and high-level CrossFit athletes.
“The worst thing that people do is say, ‘Oh, I need to sit down’, and they typically do so in a slouched position for a while. But now the swelling has accumulated posteriorly in the very position they hurt themselves in.”
Sudell said he’s OK with icing for 10-15 minutes, ideally right after you’re done laying down.
From there, you can do a Tabata-style (20 seconds of work, 10 seconds rest) of the cobra stretch (video shown below) or Mckenzie stretches as long as the pain isn’t getting worse.
“What you’re doing is pushing things anteriorly away from the spinal cord,” Sudell said. “One of the worst things you can do is stay flexed. Motion is lotion, the more you can stay moving the better. You don’t want that swelling to accumulate.”
A lot of times your back flaring up means your glutes will go into spasm, so adding in the elevated pigeon stretch for a minute per side will help alleviate that.
Finally, Sudell recommends you hit the hip flexors with the couch stretch on a bench, assuming your back will tolerate it. While the above tips should help most back flare-ups and tweaks, the REAL question you should be asking yourself is why.
Why did you hurt your back? And how can you prevent it?
If this isn’t the first time you’ve felt back pain, go see a physical therapist you trust like Sudell (who is based out of Paradiso CrossFit in Venice, Calif.) or Active Life RX to get assessed.
“Is it lack of skill? Lack of hamstring length? Can you maintain a flat back when you pick up a bar so you’re used to being pulled into a flexed position,” Sudell said. “It could be lack of core and glute strength. Many times one is is not strong without the other. So, focusing on a lot of that.
I love functional core exercises like a bear crawl or anything where you are getting your upper body and lower body involved. Single arm planks, side planks. There’s a lot of specific things you can do to attack those weaknesses.”
You can also find ways to avoid flexing your spine all day and Sudell has an easy solution: kneeling.
“It’s one of the easiest things to implement. When you kneel you are at a perfect height at your desk. It counter-rotates your pelvis and puts your spine in a naturally neutral position,” he said.
“It also forces your glutes and core to stay more active. You can’t get saggy and get lazy in that position. Your muscles are staying more active the entire time. You can do it half kneeling [with one leg back] or tall kneeling [both legs kneeling].”
Even if you have a standing desk, you can get in bad positions, especially with your upper half. Make sure you’re at a height where your desk or work station is across from you and you’re able to keep a nice tall spine. The half kneel position is also a very low grade right-hip flexor stretch. If you’re able, and the people in your office don’t think you’re crazy enough kneeling, get a balance pad to put under your knees.
“The most important thing is modifying the way you sit at work to take pressure off your back,” Sudell said. “I don’t care how much you warm up and stretch before class if you are sitting in a sh*tty position day after day, month after month. That adds up.
People who are driving a lot, you are in a chair that’s vibrating. The vibrations actually causes your muscle to relax a lot more and the muscles that are trying to protect your back are in a more relaxed state. All this kind of stuff is much more important, that you spend time on the prehab part of rehab.”
All pictures/videos courtesy of Steve Sudell.