Back in high school, when I played soccer, I went through a stretch (pun intended, you’ll see) where my lower back always hurt. I didn’t know what it was, but man was it annoying. I performed many of the typical low back stretches. Nothing worked. The dull, lingering pain persisted. I even remember a few games where I was substituted because my locked up lower back wouldn’t allow me to run as I wanted.
To my surprise, when visiting with a fantastic physical therapist (one I went to a number of times over the years for any sports-related rehab I did), he instructed me to stretch my hamstrings. “Every morning or whenever you have a few minutes throughout the day,” he told me.
But, why? Why would stretching the hamstrings influence tightness felt in the lower back?
If there’s one principle about the human body that I think everyone should know, it might be this one. The body is an complex network of integrated systems – nothing is independent. When you take a medication, there’s always a side effect. Likewise, when you stretch one muscle, it influences other parts of the so called kinematic chain. In a biomechanical sense, the kinematic chain is the series of joints and its connections (i.e. bone, muscle, tendons, and ligaments) that comprise the human body.
One of these “chains” is the posterior chain. Look in the mirror. The posterior chain is pretty much everything you DON’T see. And these muscles you don’t see in the mirror tend to be pretty important, whether for posture or performance.
During our daily lives, many of these posterior chain muscles – especially the hamstrings and calves – tend to tighten. Sitting is a huge culprit, but so too are other common things, like wearing healed shoes. (For more on the science behind this, I recommend reading anything by Katy Bowman. And pick up her newest book, Alignment Matters, it’s jam packed with valuable information, including the stretch I’m about to share.) When one muscle shortens in the chain, there’s now an imbalance. This imbalance creates a stress with another muscle in the chain.
The result? After a while, you feel lower back pain because your shortened hamstrings keep pulling on your lower back muscles.
One easy remedy, as my old PT instructed me to do, is to stretch your hamstrings regularly throughout the day. You can even combine the stretching with your walking break or some other cue to step away from your computer screen. This is what I do and I find it works well – warm up the muscles with a 10-20 minute walk, then stretch.
Here’s the stretch, which I took from Katy Bowman’s book, Alignment Matters. You’ll need a chair and something to prop up your toes, which can be a half foam roller, wedge, or even just a rolled up towel. Form a 90-degree angle with your torso and legs, and use your arms for support. Put the wedge under your toes. Note: always do this stretch without shoes. Now, the trick to the stretch is to relax your quads while at the same time raising your hips upward toward the ceiling. Hold for 10-20 seconds. Repeat.