(Tips from performance expert Dr. Zaki Afzal)
If you’ve never experienced back pain, consider yourself a minority.
Experts estimate that up to 80% of the population will experience back pain at some time in their lives.
Of course, those who are active put themselves at more risk, especially if you are using poor form in the gym or not taking proper measures to fully recover from workouts.
But back pain can happen to people of all ages and activity levels. Heck, you could be doing something as simple as picking up a piece of food you dropped on the floor and somehow tweak your back!
Be it from an injury, the gym, or everyday tasks — lower back pain is such a recurring issue that it is said to cost Americans upwards of $50 billion in health care costs each year!
The promising news is that many episodes of low back pain are mechanical, which means it’s an issue with the muscle or irritated joints. You probably don’t need a costly trip to a therapist or doctor for these types of pains.
With the proper at home assessment and professional advice — you may be able to fix your body at home!
To help you determine the root cause of your back pain and what you can possibly do to find relief, we brought in performance physical therapist Dr. Zaki Afzal.
We will go over everything for you step-by-step in this article. But many people prefer visuals, so we also filmed Dr. Afzal going over each of these issues, assessments, and solutions!
FIX YOUR BODY AT HOME: LOW BACK PAIN
STEP ONE: Make Sure Your Pain Is Not Serious
Dr. Afzal says when someone comes to his clinic with low back pain, the very first thing he does is make sure it’s nothing serious! Never assume! You can’t skip this first step!
You should not try any of these exercises if your back pain is ongoing, chronic, and/or in tandem with things such as …
- Pain that is so severe it wakes you up at night.
- Tingling, numbness, or radiating pain down your legs.
- Balance issues
- Bladder issues
If you are experiencing any of the above or any other issue that seems off, please do not use this article or video to self-treat — go see a professional for an in-person assessment.
STEP TWO: Give Yourself An Assessment
After you are certain your low back pain is nothing serious, you might need to do a few quick assessments to see where you are limited and what motions you are having issues with.
This will help you better understand the root causes of your pains, so you aren’t wasting your time doing the wrong corrective exercises!
One thing to remember as you consider the root cause of your low back pain is that your back isn’t usually the culprit! Your back is typically the victim of other parts of your body not working the way you want!
We will discuss some of these other culprits in the next three episodes. For today, we are just going to key in on the lower back.
3 COMMON CAUSES OF LOWER BACK PAIN
SIMPLE WAYS TO FIND RELIEF AT HOME
Just because you have low back pain does not mean you have an injury or something serious happening!
Dr. Afzal says that most back pain complaints he sees at his clinic are movement-related, and if it comes on from movement, he says it can generally be fixed with movement!
POSSIBLE ISSUE #1: “Backward Bend” Range Of Motion
Healthy joints have a full range of motion, but to have that, you need to expose your body to each part of the range of motion frequently.
Dr. Afzal says unlike a bent forward position, which most people spend a lot of time in (i.e., sitting,) the backward position IS NOT one we usually put ourselves in.
We rarely, if ever, experience a full backward bend throughout the day. Not putting our body in this position regularly can create range of motion limitations that can lead to back pain.
Check Your Bending Forward & Bending Backward
Keep your knees and feet straight. Relax and reach forward and down toward the ground. Do you feel a good stretch going down the back of your legs? Or do you feel tightness and/or pain? If it’s the latter, that may indicate an improvement needs to be made in your lower back.
Now, put your hands on your hips and do the same thing, except bend backward as far as you can. Do you feel pain in your lower back, or do you just need to stop because that is as far as you can go without falling backward? Grab a mirror or record yourself. You generally want to see your shoulders pass your heels as you bend backward.
If your shoulders did not go past your heels, or you felt any pain during the bent backward assessment, we have an easy corrective exercise that should help you open up.
How To Improve Backward Bend Range Of Motion
A great exercise to do to put your body in this position is the PRONE PRESS UP.
It is kind of like the “cobra” pose in Yoga, except you will NOT use your lower back or glute muscles to press up.
- Lie face down on a flat surface.
- Put your hands in a push-up position.
- Use your ARMS to push yourself off the table.
- Try to get your elbows straight. (If your hips come off the table, that is fine.)
- Slowly lower back down
- Immediately repeat for 10 reps.
- Start out doing 1-2 sets.
- Do NOT use your lower back or glute muscles. You need to turn them off so you can get a full range of motion through the back.
- Getting your elbows straight is important! That is your goal!
- How often you perform this exercise will depend on how frequently your low back pain pops up and your lifestyle habits. For example, if you experience back pain because you sit a lot at work, this is an easy exercise to do. Instead of taking just a walking break, get on the floor and do a couple sets to
Most pain isn’t because you are injured or because something is wrong; it’s usually because you are using an option of your body too much and not giving it the opposite direction!!
Sprinkle in some extension (backward bend) throughout the day, so you aren’t spending ALL your time in flexion (forward bend), and you should see a considerable improvement!
POSSIBLE ISSUE #2: Nerves
You have nerves that run out of the back, down the back of your leg, and all the way down to your foot.
Even if you don’t have numbness or tingling in the leg or shooting pain, you can still have an issue with limitations in the way the nerves feel.
Opening them up can make you feel better in terms of movement and pain.
How To “Open Up” Your Nerves
People often think they need to bend over, reach for their toes, and hold a hamstring stretch when they have lower back pain.
It is true that muscles typically like longer stretching, but your nerves don’t like to be held in a stretch for an extended time.
If your back issues are because you need to “open up” your nerves, you want to avoid “static” stretching and incorporate some movement in the stretch.
Try this in-and-out movement called NERVE FLOSSING.
- Lie on your back on a flat surface.
- Take your right knee and bring it toward your chest.
- Take both hands and put them behind your knee.
- Straighten your knee until you feel a stretch down the back of your leg.
- Hold it for one second.
- Come back down and do that motion repeatedly in and out.
- Do this for 15-20 reps for 1-2 sets.
- Repeat on the other side.
- If you want a deeper stretch, point your toe down.
- As you bring your leg up, also bring your head and chin up at the same time.
As for that last tip, you may be wondering how moving the UPPER body could help with LOWER back pain.
MRI studies show that when you move your neck, nerve movement happens all the way down your leg into your foot! In short, this means that movements up top can move nerves down low!
POSSIBLE ISSUE #3: The Way You Squat
There is a huge fear in the gym-based population that they will “fall forward” and go into flexion when they squat. When that happens, people tend to go the opposite and over-extend.
If you ONLY squat that way, you will potentially cause stress on your back that can leave you having low back issues. Dr. Afzal says staying in a “stacked” position is much more efficient than going into an over-extended position.
Other “rules” that many have ingrained in their heads that Dr. Afzal says are probably NOT the best for your back …
- Driving your butt back when squatting.
- Not allowing your knees to go past your toes.
I’m sure you are giving us that “say what” kinda look right now, especially on that second one about allowing your knees to go past your toes.
If you have knee issues, Dr. Afzal says that “rule” may possibly be beneficial. But probably NOT if you are concerned about keeping your back healthy.
There was a study done that shows that you take 40% stress off your knees when you don’t let your knees go past your toes when squatting. But the same study also showed that not letting your knees go past your toes caused a 1000x percent increase of stress on your hips and lower back!!!
Is it worth the knee trade-off? Dr. Afzal says, probably not!
The bottom line with any lifting “rule” is not to immediately say something is off-limits. Dr. Afzal says that nothing is off-limits. It’s all what your body is used to and ready for. You need to find a squat position that works for you.
Dr. Afzal says safely allowing your knees to go past your toes is probably beneficial for most people with back issues or those hoping to prevent them.
How To Correct Your Squat To Lessen Your Risk Of Back Pain
Follow these simple steps the majority of times you squat. For a visual demonstration, click here.
- Do a gentle exhale. You want your ribs down and chest facing forward.
- Slightly scoop your butt “under.”
- You should now be in a “stacked” position with your pelvis pointing down.
- Squat DOWN, not BACK.
- The direction your pelvis is pointing is the direction your hips will go. When squatting, you want your pelvis pointing down because you want your hips to go in an up/down movement. An example of when you would want your hips to go back and forth would be when doing deadlifts.
- You need to be pretty aware of your body to be able to “feel” this. One “cheat code” to help you “feel” this position a little easier would be to elevate your heels. You can do this by placing plates underneath your heels.
Dr. Afzal says it is rare that any movement would be off-limits forever. Still, sometimes your body needs a break from the things that are giving you an issue, and performing your squats like this MOST of the time should reduce stress in your lower back — often immediately.
WE HOPE YOU ENJOYED THIS THIRD EPISODE
OF OUR SPECIAL SIX-PART SERIES
“FIX YOUR BODY” with Dr. Zaki Afzal
If you have any questions about this episode, leave them in the comments section HERE, and we will do our best to get you answers!
Make sure you come back next week! We are moving on down the body and talking about how to fix your hip pain!
If you missed Episode 1 on neck pain — you can WATCH HERE.
If you missed Episode 2 on shoulder pain — check that one out HERE.