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Lower Back Pain Exercises & Why It Is Important To Loosen Tight Muscles Before Strengthening

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 26 August 2015
Hits: 8157

Lower back pain as we have discussed many times is extremely common and as many as 85% of the population will suffer with a severe case of back pain in their life. Relying on medication and anti-inflammatory medication to take your pain away is merely treating symptoms and ignoring the root cause of the problem. In our previous 5 steps of our 10 step process for getting rid of your injury or pain forever we have mainly looked at what your cause may be and how to eliminate it as a concern. This article we are now exploring the physical exercises you can use to restore function and remove pain. And to do this we ALWAYS start with flexibility or muscle length tension imbalances first. Just completing a general all over stretching program, doing more Yoga classes or following someone else's stretching program will not help you. In fact it will more than likely cause you more problems and pain! Only muscles that are tight or out of balance should be stretched. If you do not address this, the tight muscles will inhibit the weaker muscles, resulting in disrupting the entire timing and firing of muscles needed in movements like running, squatting, lunging etc. This disrupted timing will create instability and further weakness, resulting in more pain! You will need to strengthen the weak muscles, as much as you will need to weaken the tight muscles. And this is very important if you want to stop this merry go round from continuing. But the key is to weaken the neural message being sent to the tight overworking muscles FIRST, using stretches and mobilizations, quickly followed up with a well designed stability and strength training program to strengthen the weak muscles second. This article will look solely at how to weaken the tight muscles via a stretching program.

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How Do You Know WHAT To stretch?

Okay, so you sort of understand that tight muscles inhibit weak muscles and will continue to cause a multitude of problems if not corrected. This is a very important concept to understand and often a missed part of a rehab program because people want to rush straight into the exercises. It is pointless going straight to strengthening exercises while there is flexibility imbalances present. For starters you will not be able to achieve the full range of motion needed for particular movements, but worse than that the overworking tight muscles will just reinforce their position and become tighter. Even when the exercise does not require their activity. This is the essence of compensation and we quite often see this with hip and pelvic problems. The tight hips causing the glutes and hamstrings to become very weak setting the person up for all sorts of trouble. Watch the video below explaining stretching in great detail.

It is clear that stretching is needed. But as mentioned at the beginning you cannot just use a one size fits all stretching program. You need to know what to stretch specifically to you, and to do that you need to complete some assessments. The following assessments will provide you with some basic information of WHAT to stretch. To know if you need the stretch, if it is hard to do you need it. If it is not hard it means don't do it! Remember we only stretch what needs to be stretched. If you stretch too much or something that does not need it, you will create more problems.

  • Picture 1 is a hip rotation stretch
  • Picture 2 is a hip and quad stretch
  • Picture 3 is a hamstring stretch
  • Picture 4 is a calf stretch
  • Picture 5 is a abdominal stretch


Extension Related Back Pain will need stretches for this area

  1. Hip Stretches (TFL, ITB with foam roller)
  2. Quadriceps
  3. Adductors
  4. Calf muscles
  5. Back extensors

Flexion Related Back Pain will need stretches for these muscles

  1. Abdominals
  2. Hamstrings
  3. Glutes possibly
  4. Calves
  5. Thoracic Spine

The ankle is a unique stretch to both cases as tight calves can be a huge contributor to overall dysfunction within the body. Short and tight calf muscles, often pull the knees into hyper-extension, creating greater anterior tilt of the pelvis. It is like one massive chain reaction after the other, as the greater anterior tilt now creates weaker abdominal muscles due to them being stretched, tighter hips due to weaker abs, a greater curve at the neck due to the spine being screwed down really tight at the pelvis. This is why ERLBP are commonly tight in the ankles but it can also be a problem for flexion related cases too. And with other back injuries, ankle tightness can even be part of the original cause, where the injury all began! I have seen this with a few clients who have suffered major ankle trouble many years ago and continued to exercise and even worse, run on the injured ankle which in turn created a faulty movement pattern with walking and running. Once they had done enough reps to make this running style permanent it is very difficult to change. So if you have had any type of ankle problems make sure you restore optimal flexibility and stability to the ankle relative to the uninjured side to ensure you don’t have any compensatory movements.

How To Stretch?

To improve the flexibility I prefer to use contract relax stretching, but to weaken nerve signals I find long static stretching holding for 1-2 minutes with relaxed breathing is most effective. Some muscles respond better to the time, others need a more aggressive approach. But in ALL cases the timing of when you complete the stretch will make the most difference. Always warm up before stretching, trying to stretch a cold muscle is very risky and can cause more damage.

When To Stretch?

With regards to improving flexibility and the muscle length this is best done late at night right before bed! This is due to your hormones secreting relaxing hormones to make you sleepy consequently making your muscles more responsive to stretching. Second to that is the fact that while you are asleep you will not do anything to undo your stretch. Your body will now have 8 hours of a new length tension time! With regards to improving movement and eliminating compensation and movement dysfunction the stretches will need to be done during the workout. Remember at the beginning I told you tight muscles inhibit weak muscles. Well this is where you can change all of that and very quickly teach the weak muscles to fire up and be able to co-ordinate movement better than ever. A very important stage but it only works if you do the stretch first and instantly follow up with the movement you want to improve. For example a hip stretch followed up by a lunge. Read this stretching article to see more about this.

PNF Stetching:

Best done during a workout and especially after a workout. You will need a partner to do this effectively and never do this stretching without warming up first. To do this, take the muscle being stretched to its maximum length tension, and either using a rubber band or a partner push against the resistance for 5 seconds. Then relax for 5 seconds and gently take the stretch a little deeper. Repeat this process 3-5 times. By far the most effective at weakening tonic muscles and changing length tension of muscles quickly.

Trigger Points:

Trigger points develop as result of a muscle being constantly overstretched that it becomes taut. Common areas for this are in the shoulder and the piriformis muscle in the butt. Stretching these areas can be futile and a much more aggressive approach using massage or small tools that get into the trigger point are needed. I use two different tools for this. A foam roller and a small tool called Pocket Physio or muscle mate. You can get these from AOK Health. The foam roller can be very effective at releasing fascia type muscles that do not respond well to stretching such as the illiotibial band or thoracic spine. The reason I like to mobilize first is that I have found a significant improvement in the stretching of the other muscles once the fascia has been released. There is a mountain of research proving this, read "Anatomy Trains" by Thomas Meyers for more information on the role of fascia.

Mobilize First

Watch the video below for ideas on how to use the foam roller.

1. Thoracic Extension
This helps to loosen the spine and prepare for movement. Many people are very restricted through the thoracic spine from sitting too much and this is a great mobilization to help free you up.
Sets / Reps: 1 set of 5 rolls with 1 minute draping yourself over the roller making sure to hold your neck.

2. Piriformis Release

This mobilization is essential! But I warn you it is also very painful when your condition is very angry. Trigger points will develop with this tiny little muscle located right in the center of your butt. You must use massage to help quieten this muscle down otherwise the rest of our program will be compromised as the lazy glutes will not get a chance to fire. I start with the foam roller for this release and if the pain is not too bad I progress to the pocket physio (see picture in the top right)
Sets / Reps: 1 set of 5 rolls and 30 second hold on tight spot

3. TFL & ITB Mobilization

These guys are very often extremely tight for the person with Extension related pain. And the simple reason being that the hips becoming short and tight due to sitting too long and often, poor posture, poor technique, that now begin to overwork and create problems for the rest of the body. The ITB in particular grabs the pelvis and tilts it into further anterior tilt creating problems for the spine but also the glutes not being able to fire and provide a stable base for the legs to work in correct alignment causing potential leg injuries!
Sets / Reps: 1 set of 5 rolls and 30 second hold on tight spot

Nerve Flossing

Those who suffer with sciatica symptoms a different form of stretching is required. Excessive tension in the nerve is cause of sciatica. If a nerve root is impinged and cannot slide, it will increase in tension. So instead of moving it gets stretched. Further stretching creates more tension which creates more pain. Recently scientists have suggested that nerves have the ability to create their own pathways as long as they can move. This is where the idea of flossing comes from and it works by trying to pull the cord from one end while releasing from the other end and then switch directions and do the opposite. I first read this in Stuart McGill’s famous book “Low Back Disorders” way back in 2008 and have used this strategy hundreds of times with great success. Some people had no real improvement where as others instantly found relief. I suggest trying it carefully yourself to see if it helps your Sciatic pain.


How To Do It
Sitting on the edge of a bench or chair with your feet off the ground so your legs can swing freely.
1. Flex your neck so you are tucking your chin into your chest.
2. Then extend your neck by looking upwards and then behind you while simultaneously extending one of your knees so your feet point out in front of you.
3. This cycle is then reversed and repeated several times to create the flossing affect.
Technique Tips
Adopt a posture that relieves impingement just before trying flossing.. For example if you find relief from lying on your stomach do this just prior to doing the flossing. The motion should be slow and perfectly coordinated. Begin by performing 10 reps on each leg and do this several times per day.


Now that you are familiar with what areas to stretch, how to stretch them and when to stretch, all you need to do now is put this into action. By following this simple step first you now give yourself every chance of completing the next 4 stages well which will involve the stability and strengthening stage. This is where the biggest benefits can be made, but also where the biggest risks and potential disaster awaits if this step is not completed correctly.

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