(Please note: this article is only about muscular discomfort and weakness. It does not address major structural spinal issues, such as disc degeneration or slipped discs. Please see a medical professional if your concern is structural or spine-related).
It’s a common problem: you work at an office job all week long, and by the time the weekend comes around all you want to do is go out and hit a few golf balls, ride a bike, play tennis or basketball. And then your Sunday is spent lying on the couch, nursing a sore lower back and wondering what happened. Let’s get to the bottom of this problem and find out how to fix it!
What’s Going On Back There?
There are three major sets of muscles that govern the lower back:
The first are two quadrilateral shaped muscles called the quadratus lumborum that attach to the bottom of the ribs, the lumbar vertebrae (spine) and the top of the pelvis. Additionally, running the length of the spine are a set of muscles called the erector spinae. And also attached to the lumbar spine are the upper fibers of the psoas, a long and famously tight muscle that connects the torso to the legs. Because of our habits of sitting for long periods of time at a desk or in a car, these muscles often become both short and weak.
While we usually think of our core as being that belly that we see in front of us, three of the major core muscle groups also attach around to the lower back (both sets of obliques and the transverse abdominals).
An additional factor is the attachment of the hamstrings, the muscles on the back of the legs, that tend to get passively tight and weak from sitting (a condition called adaptive shortening). When tight, they start a chain reaction of pulling that runs up the back of the body and leads right into the lower back muscles, compounding the discomfort.
So you can start to get a sense of how many different muscle groups are involved in maintaining a healthy back, and how important it is to stretch and strengthen all of the above!
Why Does My Low Back Hurt After Sports?
All of these different muscle groups converge at a place on the spine where the shape of the vertebrae (the individual discs that link together to make up the spinal column) changes dramatically from those in the thoracic spine just above. The discs become larger and bend much more easily in every direction (try this experiment: move your head around and feel how your neck bends easily. Then move your belly around and feel the same range of movement in the lower back. Then try and do the same with the middle of your ribcage. It doesn’t happen!) Because of this mobility, the lower back can often take the brunt of any movement we undertake. So we have a combination of weak muscles with a highly mobile part of the spine taking on more than it should, and it’s easy to understand how this would lead to discomfort.
What Can I Do To Prevent This From Becoming a Real Problem?
1. Identify the Pain If you’ve pulled a muscle in your back, your first approach should focus on reducing inflammation in the muscles using the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) so that the tissues have a chance to rest and recover. If you’re only suffering from discomfort brought on by overuse, try a hot bath with Epsom salts, or a massage to increase the flow of blood and nutrients to the area.
2. Strengthen the Low Back You don’t need to give up your weekly pick-up basketball game; instead, add targeted yoga therapy exercises to strengthen the lower back and notice how this positively affects your jump shot!
3. Add In Abdominal Work Create even more support for the back by strengthening and stretching the abdominal muscles.
You can begin a self-massage therapy program for the Lower Back using Yoga Tune Up® Therapy Balls – find the audio guide here. To strengthen the lower back, begin with Revolved Abdominal Pose – it’s a safe pose for everyone to use (posted in Wednesday’s blog). You can then continue strengthening with the Yoga Tune Up® Quick Fix Low Back Video here, which includes many core strength exercises.
Lower back pain is an increasingly common complaint as we grow older, but with some targeted therapies and preventative measures, it doesn’t have to disrupt your game!
Learn about our Therapy Balls Program for your lower back.
Check out our Post athletic stretch DVD
Discover how to strengthen your core.
Great article! You explain everything so well that it is easy to read and understand. It’s always good to be reminded that the obliques and transverse abdominals connect to the back!
Thanks Sarah for a super informative post about an unfortunately big problem in our sedentary society, and for all of your great remedies using Yoga Tune Up(R) poses, exercises and therapy balls. Long periods of sitting is something that most people can relate to, and when people learn and understand the cause leading to the pain they are more motivated to do something about it. It’s a great sell for my students too – just starting out with “this pose is great for reducing back pain from sitting long hours at a desk” – so many people are ready to do it. A lot of yogis work to stretch the psoas to reduce the pain, which helps, but not as many people I have come across realize the importance of strenghtening the back muscles and core in conjunction to bring total balance. I feel so blessed to have so many Yoga Tune Up(R) tools to teach and work with!
Interesting…strengthen the core to strengthen the lower back. Will definitely try revolved abdominal pose. Love to twist and then hold but the addition of the revolving to work the core will be an added benefit.
Weak core is something that I need to work more on but I haven’t really had any issues with my lower back.
I really appreciate the inclusion of muscle names, descriptions and their relationships in this blog. As someone who has dealt with varying manifestations of low back pain since the age of 12, I can say that the revolved abdominal pose is one of the few that truly feels good and seems to consistently help.
I had been wondering for a long time why when my back was so obviously strong that it was always hurting when I realized that due to underdeveloped abdominal muscles, it was picking up all the slack and becoming stressed. I can say that strengthening my core help share the burden with the opposing muscles in the back.
It makes complete sense that one has to strengthen the abdominals in addition to the lower back musculature to avoid lower back pain. Once you know how these muscle groups are strucutred, connected and work together it becomes much easier to understand how to alleviate pain.
This was very useful info advise and a good reminder of back care. I wish I’d had more info like this when a student of mine back in the UK in the winter months kept missing my yoga classes due to back pain….She was addicted to adrenalin sports which is why I was so encouraging and persistent on her taking regular yoga classes ! It got to the phase where she was in constant contact with her chiropractor and alas my work with her became redundant.
The Lumbar spine is so amazing in how much burden/work it will (and insists) take on. Another great therapy for lower pain pain is BELLY DETOX (chi nei twang), a deep abdominal massage that reaches the psoas and the organs to relieve pressure on the lower back. You can imagine that if your liver is heavy with all of its burdens/responsibilities that it can also cause lower back pain if there is low circulation, poor digestion and other internal systems that are slowed or distributed by injury, diet, or stress. When the awareness comes from inside and out, the body is an incredible tool!
Thanks for the clear and concise post. As a Pilates instructor, I often encounter many clients with low back pain. After it is determined by their doctor or physical therapist that is not disc related, they send the clients to me! This is a great explanation that everyone can understand. I often need a clear way to explain their low back pain and the tools we can use to help eliminate it.
I had never given much thought to either the number of different muscles working in synergy, or to the layering of muscles. It’s so important to be informed about how the body works to stay safe and injury free, and to guide our future students toward the same result.
I have chronic lower back pain, but definitely notice that it subsides when I am doing more ab work . The effects of a weak core are really all -encompassing.
Great reminder that mush of what we feel in our lower backs has to do with a whole lot more than just the muscles of the back itself. Having experienced occasional episodes of lower back pain, increasing strength in my abdominals has really helped to alleviate this issue.
Number 3 on here really spoke to me. I’ve had chronic lower back pain for over 11 years now from my gymnastics days. Sigh. In high school I had to go to physical therapy because I was in so much pain and the therapist found that my back was very strong but my abdominals were very weak. I think every single exercise we did and all the ones I had to do at home were to build up my core. It definitely helped but I didn’t keep up with the exercises and so my pain was never fully resolved.
In the last 5 years I have become very involved in Forrest Yoga which has a very strong emphasis on core work. We do abdominals in every class and I find that my back pain over the years has greatly reduced. I still feel pain sometimes but where I used to wake everyday wincing and find myself in pain after sitting, standing for more than 5 minutes or pretty much doing anything that wasn’t savasana, my back pain occurs much less often. I spend more time out of pain than in.
I love yoga!
Thank you Sarah. It’s always good to be reminded that it’s all connected. Hamstrings and lower back…one will usually inform the other.
Yoga Tune up quick fix is a great tool to take care of the lower back problems. I also find revolved abdomina pose very effective when I experience tightness and limitations in my lower back and sacrum area.
I knew the tightness of the back and hamstrings were connected. Thanks for for clarifying with some exact terminology. Thanks
This is such a concise and clear explanation of why people experience pain in the low back. Thank you. My dad is very active but frequently complains about his low back and questions why it hurts. I’m looking forward to sharing this with him.
it’s amazing how everything connects.
It makes sense to me why strong abs help relieve low back pain. Thank you for giving me a deeper understanding by pointing out the specific muscles involved and how they are related to this connection.
I am fascinated with the many muscles of the low back. After 4 pregnancies of have core issues too. Yoga, massage and stretching are really the key.
the article illustrates nicely the need to go beyond just working the rectus abdominis on machines at the gym and broadening one’s routine to target the deeper muscles of the core. It also points out really nicely how anterior and posterior muscles groups work in tandem, and should be equally developed, even though we tend to focus more on what we see easily in the mirror.
Learning all about the core in YTU training I. Psoas is a very cool muscle under anatomical dissection…
I agree that lower back pain is common especially in weekend warriors. It would be beneficial for a weekend warrior to utilize the yoga tune-up program at least the quick fix series. After all they are weekend warriors and don’t make time during the week for themselves. A quick fix is better than nothing at all.
The qadratus lumborus is one of the source that I don’t know cause back pain. I to pay more attend to this area of body part. More core, ab exercise and more side bends side plank
It’s incredible to realize how many muscles in the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum don’t receive the care and attention they deserve, and instead get abused by repeated slouching and other harmful daily activities! In backbends, I’m going to bring more focus to the quadriatus lumborum and psoas major that wrap around the lumbar spine to stabilize it. By contracting the quadratus lumborum, I can continue to protect the lumbar spine in that asana.
I’m an avid biker (100 miles per week) with (of course) some back issues. This blog gives me inspiration and hope. Thanks, Sarah.
Didn’t realize the core was more than just the “six pack” and that the obliques attached at the lower back.
I never suspected that the hamstrings are connected to the lower back muscles.
It is amazing how interconnected the abdominal muscles are with the lower back. Sitting at a desk can really weaken our muscles, and contribute to back problems. You offer great tips for strengthening our backs and obliques so that we can safely pursue our weekend adventures. Thank you.