I know what some of you might be thinking: Jake, you’re a young buck at only 25 years of age. You should be a testosterone filled machine, humming along at 200 mph, with no signs of slowing down. You should be in the prime of your life. What is this nonsense about back pain?
The truth is, I think my even younger days of going 300 mph is what has led me to this point. By the time I was 21, my right shoulder had been operated on twice, with my knee also seeing some time under the knife. This all due to years of my life spent behind the plate in baseball, doing my best to deliver de-cleaters on the football field, or the parking lot (which lead to a few ER trips), riding motorcycles, and all the other stupid things we do as young boys in small town Texas. I’ll share with you some of these stories one day if you’re lucky.
Anyhow, all this physical activity in my younger years, mixed with improper nutrition, movement patterns, and far too much time spent sitting (yes, I drove a bus for a living in college) had left me with a pelvic tilt, which is a continual work in progress, as well as low back pain.
Like many of you, I feel like I have tried it all as well. I started with the chiropractor, acupuncture, having my pelvis popped (ouch), foam rolling, shoving lacrosse balls in unholy places, sleeping on the ground for months at a time, hot pads, Shaq-approved Icy Hot patches, creams, Men’s Health exercises, yoga, and whatever else comes to mind.
It was not until recently I began to tackle this issue with laser-like focus. I can now share with you the 11-minute routine I complete EVERY MORNING that allows me to avoid back pain all day, regardless of my activity, as long as I abstain from sitting more than 2 hours at a time. The following is a compilation of exercises and stretches from textbooks, blogs, articles, experience, and honestly, just what feels right.
Here we go!
0:00 – 5:00 Minutes: Decompress
Find a place where you can lie with your back flat on the ground, with your knees at a 90-degree, resting on either a chair, bench, bed, table, or something similar, with your arms spread to the side. I prefer to lay on my living room floor with my feet resting in my Lazy-Boy recliner.
Try to keep your hip angle and knee angle as close to 90-degrees as possible, with your low back flat on the floor. Press your low back into the floor if it is not touching. This position will help to decompress the lumbar spine and support any realignment efforts.
I do this first thing in the morning in order to combat any adjustments that occurred during the night. Upon waking is when I incur my highest levels of back pain as well.
Take the 5 minutes to practice a little mindfulness. I suggest prayer if you’re a praying person, meditation, or just listening to a relaxing bit of music.
5:00 – 6:00 Minutes: Glute Bridge Hold
From the 90-degree position, I’d like for you to keep your back flat on the floor, arms spread to the side. At this point, move your feet flat onto the floor, so your hip-knee-ankle forms an isolateral triangle with the floor.
Begin this exercise by contracting your glutes and raising your hips to where they are in line with abdomen and sternum. Hold here for 1 minute. You will feel this not only in your glutes, but your lower back, and hamstrings.
One minute could be hard to hold at first. I recommend starting with 2 x 30-second intervals or even 3 x 15 seconds if needed.
6:00 – 7:00 Minutes: Glute Bridge Contraction
Perform this same glute bridge, from buttocks on the ground to the top of the movement, but hold the top contraction for only a second. Perform 25 reps.
Again, you may have to work up to 25 reps, but if you cannot perform this amount, give me your max effort in this minute.
7:00 – 8:00 Minutes: Low Back Extension
I will then turn onto my elbows and knees. From this point, walk your elbows out to where your hands currently stand (roughly a cubit, if you’re familiar with Biblical measurements). Extend your back as if you are trying to place your belly on the floor, while simultaneously turning your thumbs out and extending the stretch into your thoracic spine. Hold for 30 seconds.
Immediately bring yourself back on your hands and roll into a cobra stretch, extending your hips, and continuing to press your belly into the floor, and your upper torso as far back as possible. Think as if you were trying to fold your upper-half onto the back of your legs.
You should be feeling pretty amazing already.
8:00 – 8:30 Minutes: Snail Stretch
I do not know the exact name of this stretch, therefore, I apologize to any Bikram Yoga fanatics. I always feel a magician’s assistant, shoved into the shell of a snail whenever I perform this stretch. Aren’t you excited now?
Sit back on your ankles in a Japanese-style position. Place your forehead on the floor in front of you and grab the underside of your heels with your hands.
From here, attempt to roll your body on the top of your head (this is not possible), but resist with your hands. There should be a ton of tension here. Your lumbar spine will feel like you are pulling it apart. Well, that is because you are. You are creating space and relieving tension built in this region of the spine by compression, a hunched seated position, or an excessive lumbar extension (arch in the low back) while standing. You know which one you are.
Take a little breather.
9:00 – 11:00 Minutes: Samson Stretch
The hip flexors, those muscles that allow you to bring your knees toward your chest, are adamant about providing you with low back pain. What do hip flexors naturally want to do? FLEX! This tension brings your chest and torso forward, in front of your toes, and tight hip flexors will keep you locked in this position and place an enormous strain on your low back.
The best way to deaden this response is to stretch the hip flexor. Start with one knee on the ground, with the other foot out in front at a slightly greater than 90-degree angle to the floor. Think of a lunge position.
Begin to lean into the foot with the foot on the floor, extending the grounded leg, while keeping the knee on the floor, and stretching that hip flexor. Be sure your front knee does not extend past the toes of that foot. Then raise your hands above your head, clasp your hands, turn your palms toward the sky, head slightly back, and press your palms toward the ceiling.
Hold for 1 minute. Repeat on the opposite side.
There you have it. I can tell a dramatic difference between mornings when I complete this routine and those when I do not. I also will throw in an extra session during the day or evening depending on my activities that day.
Counterintuitively, it is not the active days that place this extra strain on my back, but long drives in the car, airplane travel, and hours spent sitting behind the desk. Standing is much better for our lower back health. However, all things are on the bell curve right? Standing all day behind the booth at trade shows, expos, and events will also give my low back fits and cause extra care to be given.
Within these 11 minutes of my morning routine, I have drastically changed the way my low back responds to stimuli and how it feels throughout the day. I hope this can help you to do the same.
If you know of anyone who could use this info, please share! All comments and questions are welcome.
For those time when your back seems to be getting the best of you, incorporate a few more of these exercises into the above sequence.
Butterfly Glute Bridge Hold (30 – 60 sec.)
Begin in the butterfly position with your lower half, but instead of sitting up during this stretch, lie with you back flat on the floor. Proceed to lift your butt off the ground by contracting your glutes. You will feel this more in the distal glutes, while stretching your hip flexors, groin, and lower back. Aim to hold this contraction for 1 minute.
While leaving one leg straight and flat on the ground, pull the opposite knee towards your side, grabbing a few inches below the knee. Pull towards the chest, but avoid your ribs. This is stretching the high hamstring of the leg you are pulling, as well as the hip flexor of the opposing leg.
Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
Following this stretch, start with both legs flat on the floor, legs as straight as possible. Then lift one leg, maintaining an extended leg by flexing your foot and extending your knee, and pull this leg towards your chest by clasping hands on the hamstring below your knee. This stretch moves into the middle and lower hamstrings while maintaining a stretch on the opposing hip flexor.
Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite leg.
Begin this next stretch by lying flat on the floor, with both your knees bent at a 45-degree angle, just like starting the glute bridge hold. Take one ankle and place it on top of the opposing knee, so your legs make a square shape. Lift and pull the leg whose foot is still on the ground, by clasping your hands on the hamstring, just below the knee. Pull this knee towards your chest and attempt to give yourself a mouthful of your own ankle. You will feel this stretch in the minor muscles of the glutes, working its way into your IT band.
Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Lastly, if you own pets that think lying on the ground is an invitation to play or lick your face dry, take a break and give them some love. They’ll accomplish more for your health than you know.