I wrote my first article for Pinkbike on how yoga can help to relieve lower back pain almost two years ago. It got over 100k views in the first week which blew me away. I was shocked at how many of you guys were suffering. The recommendations I've given since have had such a high success rate that I wanted to review the stretches and exercises I’ve found to be most effective. For those of you who've nailed the sequence I broke down in the original article, you might find this one a little less challenging – in response to a number of requests I received to provide a more accessible alternative – but it's always good to mix things up.
The causes of lower back pain
To clarify, I’m referring to lower back pain caused by stress sustained over a long period of time. How you got here is going to be different for each of you but the resulting pattern of muscular imbalances is going to be roughly the same.
As with all my articles, there are two basic points to remember:
1. Your body is an efficiency machine. It adapts to the position you put it in for most of the time. 2. Everything in your body is connected, so muscular imbalances have a domino effect.
Sitting for long periods of time on your bike, at a desk, whilst driving, commuting, eating or with your feet up in front of the TV leads to the following set of muscular imbalances:
- Short hip flexors (the psoas and iliacus) pull the pelvis forward causing lordosis (overarching of the lumbar spine) and compression (tightening) at the lower back - Lack of mobility in the hips pulls the pelvis out of alignment and places stress on the lumbar spine - Tight hamstrings and groin (adductor muscles) force you to round your back as you bend forward, increasing tension at the lower back - A weak core and glutes forces the lower back to overwork to compensate - A lack of mobility in the thoracic spine places stress on the lower back and can also lead to neck and shoulder pain
Lower back pain is likely to be exacerbated if you do weight-bearing exercise or sports that involve running, jumping or fast, dynamic movements which stress the lower back without stretching and releasing tight muscles.
Evaluate your level of pain
The stretches and 15-minute yoga routine I’m going to outline in this article are designed to relieve tightness in the lower back and correct muscular imbalances that are often present with back pain. They may not be suitable for more severe conditions including muscle spasms, disk injuries or spondylolisthesis.
If you're injured, please check with your doctor or physical therapist that it's safe for you to do these exercises.
PHASE 1: Stretch tight muscles
If you’re in intense pain, I recommend that you start by gently loosening up tight muscles in the area. If there is potential nerve or disc damage, you should avoid forward bends, backbends, twists and seated poses as they may aggravate your condition, so here are six supported reclining poses you can do as often as you need them. Hold each one for a minimum of 3 minutes, ideally in the evening when your muscles are warm and stretchy. You can start with just one a day and gradually build up to the full sequence.
Breathe in and out through your nose, aiming to make your exhalations twice the length of your inhalations. Count in for 4 and out for 8.
1. Legs Up The Wall
- Sit right up close to a wall. - Swing your legs up to vertical and come down onto your back. - Bring your arms out by your sides, palms facing up. - Relax fully into the pose.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the mat, hip-width apart. Check that your toes point straight ahead. - Rest your arms by your sides, palms facing down. Walk your feet back until your fingertips graze your heels. - Lift your hips all the way up and put a block at the base of your spine. Yoga blocks have 3 different heights, so only go as high as is comfortable and feels therapeutic. - Breathe deep into your belly to release your psoas.
- This is a hamstring and calf stretch. - Lie flat on your back. - Bring your left knee into your chest, loop a strap, belt or towel around the arch of your foot and then straighten your leg as much as is possible up to the sky. - Keep your left foot flexed and press through your heel. - If you find yourself straining in the pose, you can bend your bottom leg and bring the sole of your right foot flat to the mat. - Relax. Use the weight of your arms and gravity to increase the intensity of the stretch. - When you're ready, release the pose and switch sides.
- This pose stretches the glutes and outer hips. - Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the mat. - Rest your left ankle on your right knee. - Thread your left hand through the triangle between your legs and hold the back of your right thigh with both hands. Gently pull your leg in towards you. - Relax your neck and shoulders. - You can interlace your fingers around your shin to increase the intensity. - When you're ready, release the pose and switch sides.
- This pose releases tight hips. - Sit on your mat, bring the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall open in the shape of a diamond. - Place several cushions or a couple of pillows behind you and lie back onto them. - Let your arms fall out to the sides. - Completely relax into the pose, allowing gravity to release tightness in your hips. - Supporting your knees on cushions will increase the intensity of the pose.
- This pose releases tension at the lower back. - Lie flat on your back and squeeze your right knee into your chest. - Bring both arms out in a T, palms facing down. - Hook your right foot behind your left inner thigh and gently guide your right knee across your body down towards the mat, as far as is comfortable. - If your knee doesn’t come all the way down, you can support it on a cushion or two. - Look to the right and let go of tension in your neck and shoulders. - When you're ready, take a deep breath in. Exhale, come back to centre and switch sides.
PHASE 2: Strengthen weak muscles
When you feel that you’re out of the danger zone, you can introduce some strengthening exercises. Try to do them every day or as often as you can, ideally in the morning when your energy and motivation levels are high. These exercises strengthen the lower back (erector spinae), abs, hips, glutes and obliques which are typically weak if you sit for much of the day. These muscles work together to support your lumbar spine, allowing you to generate maximum power through your arms and legs.
Hold them for 5-10 breaths, in and out through your nose, or as long as you can without compromising your form. It's crucial that you contract your core muscles and don't just hang out in the poses. The objective is to strengthen all the muscles that work together to support your lower back.
- From all fours, walk your hands forward, tuck your toes and come up into Plank. - Spread your fingers wide and press your hands evenly into the mat. Check that your shoulders are directly over your wrists and your feet are hip-width apart. - Try to create a straight line all the way from your heels, to your hips, to the back of your head. Engage your core and press back through your heels to straighten your legs. - Look down at the mat to complete the alignment.
- From Plank, shift your weight onto your right hand and come to the outside edge of your right foot. Open your body to the left stacking your left foot on top of the right and bring your left hand to your hip. - Make sure your right wrist is directly below your right shoulder and straighten your left arm up to the sky. - Your ankles, hips and shoulders should all be in a straight line. - When you're ready to come down, take a deep breath in. Exhale, come back to Plank and switch sides.
- Lie face down on the mat with your feet hip-width apart and your arms resting by your sides, palms facing up. - Inhale, lift your chest, hands, arms and feet off the mat. Exhale, draw your shoulders back and push through the balls of your feet, looking straight down at the mat so you don't compress your neck. - When you're ready, take a deep breath in. Exhale, come down onto the mat. - Rest your left cheek on the mat and rock your hips from side to side to release your lower back. - Push back to Child's pose for a few breaths.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the mat, hip-width apart. Check that your toes point straight ahead. - Rest your arms by your sides, palms facing down. Walk your feet back until your fingertips graze your heels. - Screw your feet into the mat and lift your hips all the way up. Check that your knees point straight ahead and do not fall out to the sides or in towards each other. - Roll your shoulder blades underneath you and come up to your edge. Interlace your fingers if you can. - Contract your glutes to stabilise your hips. - When you're ready to come down, take a deep breath in. Exhale, lower slowly down onto the mat. - Bring one hand to your belly and one hand to your chest. Walk your feet to the edges of the mat and drop both knees slowly to the right, and to the left. Windscreen wiping your knees a few times to release your lower back.
PHASE 3: Increase mobility in tight joints
This 15-minute sequence is designed to increase thoracic spine (mid-back) and hip mobility, stretch your hip flexors, quads, hip rotators, glutes, hamstrings, and adductors (groin) and strengthen your lower back and abs. You can start to practice it whenever you're ready but if you feel significant discomfort in a particular pose this may be a signal that you do not yet have sufficient flexibility in that set of muscles. Only go as far into each stretch as feels comfortable.
We finish with a short diaphragmatic breathing exercise that is designed to relax tension throughout your body and calm down your central nervous system.
Practice this sequence in the evening after a ride and ideally 3-5 times a week until the pain starts to ease off. Remember to pay attention to your breathing throughout, keeping your breaths long, slow and deep.
If you’re young and pain-free or only feeling the odd niggle, remember that it’s much easier to prevent back pain than it is to heal it. Keep your back loose and healthy by putting in the time with your flexibility and mobility training now. Practicing this 15-minute sequence once or twice a week may be enough to keep you limber and supple so you can ride harder, for longer, and hopefully sustain fewer injuries along the way.
Other things you can do
1. Try not to sit for more than 30 minutes at a time. Take breaks to go for a walk or do some simple stretches. 2. Be aware of your posture throughout the day, standing or sitting up tall whilst keeping your neck and shoulders relaxed. 3. Foam roll or lacrosse ball your upper and lower back, rib cage, glutes, quads and hip flexors to improve soft tissue and joint mobility. 4. Mix up your yoga routines (and all of your training) so you continue to make progress and don’t sustain repetitive strain injuries. 5. Incorporate recovery sessions. This could include yoga, breathing, massage, sauna, ice baths (my new current obsession) or just taking time off work to play and have fun. 6. Warm up and cool down before and after rides. 7. Prioritise sleep to optimise muscle tissue repair, especially on days when you’re pushing your body to the max. 8. Consider supplementing with fish oil, turmeric, and magnesium. You'll find more info on www.examine.com
As always, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.