If I had a nickel for every time I heard “sore lower back” when asking students about injuries or limitations I would own a small island in the Caribbean! In our modern lives, most of us are in near constant hip flexion. We wake up and sit on the bed, sit down on the toilet, sit down for breakfast and sit in the car or bus or subway to end up at work, sitting at our desks before returning home to sit down for dinner and then on the couch for our favorite show. There are many implications to this pattern, but a common result is tight hamstrings and hip flexors or Psoas muscles, and an over stretching of the antagonizing low back muscle, Quadratus Lumborum (QL). The QL is vital to maintaining a healthy back and spine and even contributes to healthy respiration.
Quadratus Lumborum literally means “rectangular muscle of the loins”, and it bridges the ribcage and pelvis. This relatively small muscle has big actions. When both QL muscles contract together they extend the spine and can fix the 12th rib in forced exhalation. When only one side is contracting it acts to laterally flex the spine, or if the upper body is stabilized it will elevate or “hike up” one hip.
In our daily long held seated postures the QL becomes exhausted. With the opposing psoas contracting to flex the hip, the QL would normally lengthen and stretch. Instead it is constantly contracting to support the spine especially when the lower fibres of the other back extending muscles, the erector spinae, become weak. This leads to overuse and muscle fatigue and even muscle spasm from decreased blood flow. Considering topping this off by crossing the legs and further contracting the QL to bring lateral flexion to the upper leg side of the torso – Egad! This transgression brings on the one-sided low back pain.
It is important to note that quadratus lumborum pain can travel all over the low back, so it is not always clearly evident as the culprit muscle. You might feel it in in the iliac crest, at the sacrum, front of the hip, abdomen and groin or the gluteus. It is not just your average pain in the behind. It affects the entire posterior chain. It could team up with tight hamstrings or a weak upper back to more severely inhibit your pain-free movement.
We don’t always take full deep breaths throughout our day but certainly stepping onto our yoga mats or gearing up for any cardio exercise will reveal a tight QL too. It can pull on its connection to the 12th rib and overlap with the respiratory diaphragm to inhibit deep breathing. Have you ever felt stuck at the bottom of an exhale? or taken a deep inhale and felt it in your low back? You don’t want to mess with the breath! Promoting openness and pliability in the QL can clear the way for full powerful breath whether you are meditating, blowing out candles or belting it out with Rihanna!
The GOOD news is that Yoga Tune Up® can help. The first step in alleviating pain in the QL is awareness, admitting you have a problem… and getting out of your seat! However, sitting for long periods of time cannot always be avoided and does not necessarily mean you are inactive. This muscle is worked when kayaking, biking or rowing too.
To start, Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls can directly massage tight muscle fibers, even through the heavy fascial layers of the lower back. Get down on your back, lift your hips to slide the balls on either side of the spine between the lowest rib and hip. Now roll around to heaven! Warning: you may have to roll through a bit of yucky stuff on your way there.
To build strength and flexibility, targeted Yoga Tune Up® poses like Sidewinder, Boomerang Sidebend or Cobra at the Wall can help to strengthen and stretch the QL. This is a muscle to keep healthy so that we can keep sitting pretty… and walking, bending, running, jumping and breathing pretty too!
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I’ve never seen in that way. When i’m drinving for long time, always that my abs where not strong enought because my lower back hurts, but i’m considering that I might be to close on my pedal so my hips are in a big flexion and strech back QL… I’ll try to extend more maybe a create more space
I always love being able to read your articles, Nancy. Thank you for such a clear understanding on the QL.
Thank you so much for your in-depth analysis of the QL. You have described in one paragraph the problem which specialists have been circling around to identify for over a year. During this time the pain has gone from lower back to both legs and back again several times. Now having just discovered the Sidewinder in a Yoga Tune Up class today I can’t wait to add it and the Boomerang Sidebend to my daily practice.
I am in high tech field and have to sit very long hours during the day. Thanks for explaining that long hours of sitting might result in over stretching of the Quadratus Lumborum (QL). To strengthen and stretch my QL, I will do Boomerang at Wall pose couple of times during the day.
I had know idea that the pain from the QL could travel so much, but it absolutely makes sense. I will especially keep an eye on how QL tightness can restrict deep breath by restricting the movement of that last rib. The therapy balls I imagine help bring blood flow back into the area, bringing some nourishment and ease. Thank You YTU balls!
I’ve been spending a lot more time than usual sitting the last few weeks and it is driving my back and legs crazy! I’ve been going after the erector spinae, and lots of hammy and quad stretching and rolling, but clearly not enough QL. Looking forward to doing some QL work tonight with therapy balls for tension relief, and sidewinder to restore motion. Thanks for reminder that so often where we hurt isn’t where the pain is coming from.
Hi Nancy! I notice you brought up that he QL is worked during biking. With proper form do you recommend cycling… I have been hearing mixed reviews but I think it is because bikers tend to suffer from extreme protraction while holding the handles. Thank you! You
YTU balls are heaven for the QL! I have a pesky QL at times myself. I’m beginning to notice which of my habits contribute to an overactive QL (I often stand with my hip cocked for one!), and am working to change those. But the YTU QL ball massage is an absolute must in my routine- it feels amazing and really can help on the days when my posture is less than ideal. I will definitely be adding this to my personal training repertoire as well- my clients will love me for it!
Thanks for the article. I want to avoid lower back pain and plan to add some of the poses you suggested like Boomerang sidebend to my regular yoga practice.
On the day that I sit at my desk 10-12 hours, I do notice how stiff and tight my QLs are, sometimes I wake up with a knot in that region, and always on the left side, must have caused from my habit of the one leg over the other. Thank you for pointing that out, I haven’t realized the correlation.
I always wondered Nancy if doing sidewinder will cause my QLs to tighten even more. It’s one of the reasons I’m afraid to do them very often. Especially since you mentioned how week erector spinae will cause the QLs to engage while sitting, can tight overworked psoas muscles cause the QLs to fire more (in order to stabilize)?
WOW! I never have thought about how sitting with my legs crossed is effecting my QL! When I sit at table, I can only cross one leg over comfortably; I’m sure this has something to do with an imbalance in my QL (amongst a host of other things as well)
Yes, I am guilty of abusing my QL by sitting too much at a desk, crossing my legs habitually, and even standing with one leg externally rotated and the opposite hip elevated. Sassy but super bad SI joints and poor QL. And I wonder why I’ve lived with chronic back pain for so long! Well, YTU has shown me the light and I have already noticed a difference n a very short time. This article was very informative and spot on. Thanks!
You have shown light on the QL very elegantly Nancy! My alpha is my new driving companion and it’s favorite home is my QL. Recently I drove across the country in five consecutive days and if it wasn’t for my yoga tune up balls I would have been stiff and in pain for days. Thanks!
Michelle, that is awesome!!! I have found so much relief paying attention to this little muscle! Keep it up.
Nancy – You have nailed it!! My QL was singing just reading your article because it knows it cannot hide out anymore. I have been experience extreme tightness in my QL for the last 2 years but I’m sure it’s been 2 decades in the making. Today in Level I Training with Jill we began the morning practice by rolling out the QL. After we stopped and rested I was able to feel back there … now that is remarkable for me because I just realized that other than pain I have not been feeling anything back there for years. I am sold on making this a daily practice of self care. Thanks for all the additional insight from your article.
[…] Pain | Tags: Back Pain, Healing Lower Back Pain, Hips, Lower Back Pain, Yoga Tune Up Poses The quadratus lumborum, aka QL, is one of the deepest muscles of the posterior trunk, and forms part of the posterior […]
This blog post really helped me understand the function of the QL in daily life (when sitting) and not just the action that involves elevation of the hip. I find it a little difficult to find the QL with the balls but the boomernang sidebend hits the spot everytime.
While sitting in YTT for the last few days my lower back has been killing me. After receiving my Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls, I noticed an immediate difference when letting them massage my QL and psoas. Can’t begin to express my gratitude for learning these self care tips early on, not only for my sanity but for my bank account too, I was about ready to schedule a pricey NYC massage.
My daughter has scoliosis, so her QLs are constantly tight, often to the point of spasm. Releasing them with the Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls has helped her tremendously in easing her pain.
I have suffered from lower back pain on one side and Had no idea this muscle could be the culprit of my pain. Thanks for shedding light on this very important muscle!
During my certification for Yoga Tuneup I have come to learn all about the QL. I realized in the first day of training that I had no idea how much this vital muscle works directly or indirectly with the various parts of the body and organs. And the therapy balls…LOVE them working the QL.
The QL is such an important muscle to maintain the structural integrity of the body. I find it sad that we make youth (school children) sit down most of the day to learn. I wish there was a better system for getting people active instead of couching it. In addition, so many muscles are directly and indirectly related to the QL, several organs and bones. Youth need to know how to properly maintain and increase their strength and flexibility in the QL.
Makes so much sense.I really appreciate this enlightened explanation. My QL loves it’s therapy balls and then a good sidewinder.
I’ve always had that mysterious pain in my left hip, sacrum, psoas and when i was massaging my QL on the block with the YTU balls I realized that it was coming from my back. I haven’t been diagonosed but I think it is a disc issue. I am happy that I I have been able to discover it with the ball massage and can help remedy the issue along with the other YTU poses.
As a person who works out doors doing tree work, I can not overstate the stretching out of the QL. I can say as the only one on the crew who has an idea about where and how to work out the kinks. I don’t complain about lower back pain.
The QL sure is a doozy, its amazing to me how many people can’t quite pin point thier back pain, but it does usually come from the QL. In Jill’s hip immersion, we rolled the QL and I was amazed to feel referal pain all through my hip, it really illustrated the relationship between the low back and pelvis, Amazing