This is one of the most common questions I get so I thought it would be good to expand on it today. It's the all to common story -- you’re mid wod, doing great, then all the sudden your back gets tighter… and tighter... and tighter… and so tight to the point where you’re forced to grab a weight belt or take extra long rest breaks. Your lower back muscles eventually get so tight you quit the workout in fear that you might do some long term damage. Now your on the sidelines frustrated and wondering why. Well, you’re essentially overloading the muscles of the lower back leading to the excessive “pump” feeling. This can happen from a number of causes, but here are the reasons why:
You have tight hip and a stiff thoracic spine (mid/upper back)
Our daily habits OUTSIDE of the gym play a tremendous role in your ability to workout safely. If we develop stiffness in the areas above and below the lumbar spine - the thoracic spine and hips - our bodies will cause the lower back to work harder to pick up the slack. And we all know happens when we overwork our lower back. If you sit all day, whether at work, while driving, or binge watching NetFlix, chances are you have tight hips, specifically the hip flexors (known as the iliopsoas). This muscle has a direct attachment to all the lumbar spine vertebrae and is one of the top contributors of lower back pain and tightness. It is absolutely essential that you spend extra attention here. Add both the world's greatest stretch (video below) and kettlebell psoas release (video below) to your warm-up routine. Also spend extra time warming up as a whole - being warm and loose increases the your bodies ability to circulate blood and fluid, which will help to mitigate the pump feel and decrease the chance it will fire up.
You use your back when you shouldn’t
If you’re dealing with lower back tightness, chances are your failing to hip hinge. Meaning in instances where you should be using your hips and legs to complete tasks, you’re using your back. This can range anywhere from picking up heavy plates and loading the bar to rounding during a deadlift or dumbbell power snatch. Speaking of the dumbbell snatch - how many times have you “blown up” your back with high reps of this exercise?? You are likely not thinking about your legs enough and bending at the back with every rep. Take your time (as fast as you can of course haha), and use your legs more. Bend at the hips and try not to round at the back.
You lack weight shift control while lifting
This one is HUGE. How often do you pay attention to how your weight is distributed within your feet? When performing an exercise, every time you shift towards your toes you increase pressure and demand on the lower back. This can happen with any exercise but especially when the weight (or your weight; ie running) is in front of your center of mass. This commonly occurs with front squats, cleans, overhead squats, deadlifts, dumbbell snatches, barbell thrusters, wall balls, kettlebell swings, and burpees. I bet these are some of the most common movements that tighten up your back, right? Pay attention to how your weight is distributed in your feet! Ideally your weight should be evenly distributed between your heel, the ball of your foot, and just behind the pinky toe OR shifted more towards the heel only depending on the movement (ex: deadlift). Being conscious of this tip alone will make a huge difference.
You lack core strength and control
Essentially you’re allowing too much spinal motion during your CrossFit movements -- both extension backwards and flexion forwards. A great example of when this occurs is when pushing weight overhead. If your shoulders are tight, you’ll likely extend at the lower back to get the weight fully overhead. Not good. Another example is the power clean -- when the load starts to get heavy, an athlete will often extend forcefully at the lower back, and even worse, catch the load in the extended (over arched) position.
Here's where athletes go wrong. They are often told by Dr. Google or another healthcare practitioner to strengthen the lower back with movements like supermans, reverse hypers, or bird dogs. What you should be doing is training stability of the anterior core. And i’m not talking the 6 pack exercises like crunches, russian MB twists, or sit ups. I’m referring to “anti-motion” exercises like the plank, pallof press, or ball slam. These exercises will give you the stability you need to prevent the overworking tightness on the posterior side. Add them into your routine.
It sucks when your lower back starts to tighten because it can often ruin a workout. Paying attention to these key 4 concepts will make a huge difference when implemented regularly. What doesn’t work includes inversion tables, hot packs, e-stim, gravity boots, hamstring stretching, foam rolling, or other passive modalities. If you want a long term fix, take action. Lower back pain is the number 1 area we treat at The Charlotte Athlete and we would be glad to help.
If you’re in the Charlotte area and are interested in working with a unique professional that can help you improve your lower back health long term, we need to talk. Being proactive and staying on top of your health will help you avoid serious health problems down the road.
Submit a contact request by clicking the button below and we’ll get you set up with one of our Doctors for a free 15-minute phone consult.
Thanks for reading,
This is where we share our expert opinion on hot topics in physical therapy, injury prevention, sports performance, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and sometimes other random thoughts. Enjoy.