I can’t recount the amount of times someone has come to me and said, “I was out just doing some yard work and I bent over to pick up the shovel and my back seized up. Got any stretches for me to do?”
And the answer isn’t always the same, because the individual situation dictates what needs to be done. However, more often than not, the culprit isn’t the low back. Usually things like spasms in the low back are due to either:
- Overuse of the area due to a lack of strength somewhere else OR
- An actual weakness in the low back
The great thing is, we are no longer living in a world of strength and fitness dominated by cable machines focusing solely on one muscle group. Thus we can do exercises that don’t isolate but rather integrate.
So let’s look at the bent over position to see if we can figure this out.
When someone bends over, a few things can happen
- They hinge from waist and then continue to round the lower back to get down to the object on the ground (common)
- They have been taught to hinge and maybe have had back problems in the past so they keep their back arched as they hinge their hips back but at some point have to do something different to get to the ground (less common but I’ve definitely seen it with athletic individuals)
- They have chronic low back issues and protect by squatting down, letting the knees go forward and possibly lift the heels off the ground, while keeping the back very straight and upright (we have all seen this and can tell it’s someone who has experienced a significant amount of back pain in their life)
- GOLD STAR: they hinge at the hips keeping the back neutral and stabilized. Once they can’t hinge any deeper, they squat to the object, keeping their feet grounded, BRACE against the load and pick it up safely!
Now here is the thing, any one of the above 4 options may have to occur at some point because of the object being lifted or just not being thoughtful when lifting things over and over. So our goal isn’t to just live in an ideal world. We as coaches need to teach #4 while also recognizing the weak point in #1, 2 and 3.
So how can I help someone build strength for #4 and be resilient enough to handle #1, 2 and 3. The answer won’t surprise you: core strength. However, the exercise variation I am going to use might (mostly because you don’t see it very often!)
Band assisted Leg Lifts
The idea here is simple: by using the band to create tension, the core musculature is activated correctly prior to movement. This idea can be, and usually is, foreign to most people, especially those experiencing low back pain.
More importantly, if you create that tension in the core, it addresses both the causes I listed above, potentially weak opposing muscles that the low back is working overtime for AND actual low back weakness.
Now there are multiple variations you can do with this: bent leg, one leg at a time, straight legs etc. So here would be my progression with the exercise from lowest level of strength to highest:
- Single leg bent knee, think dead bug, heel touching the floor
- Alternating single leg bent knee
- Bilateral bent knee, again dead bug, both heels touching simultaneously
- Single leg straight, non working leg resting on the ground
- Alternating single leg
- Single leg straight, non working leg hovering
- Alternating single leg with non working leg hovering
- Bilateral straight leg
- Bilateral straight leg, legs hovering the entire set
So you can see there is a variation for almost any level of strength. The key here is simple: engage the band before every leg movement, making sure the entire trunk musculature is active and braced. That means you should feel the 6 pack muscles, the obliques, the deep core muscles AND the low back muscles (QLs and erectors) all firing and staying active through the movement.
And more important still, during the entire duration of the movement, the core should not disengage. If you need to relax because you’re fatigued, do so in between repetitions.
Finally, if you observe the movement, you can see a hinge occur, except you are bringing the legs towards the torso versus the other way around. And by having both a band and the ground for support, you can quickly learn how to brace through a ideal hinge to squat pick up (#4) but also prepare the trunk to handle any other position (#1, 2 or 3) that might!
Progress through these and you can break out of your fragile mold into the super hero you feel like inside!