Ever had some lingering pain in your back that seemed to come out of nowhere? Do people tell you to “straighten your back” frequently? Do you not move around as well as you once did? If any of this applies to you, please continue reading to learn about a complex yet common muscular deficiency that people suffer from.
In this day and age, we spend hours upon hours sitting on our rumps, hunched over while eating, watching TV, working on the computer, and so on. When we try to exercise and better ourselves, the damage made by all the sitting and bad posture is made evident.
Your back hurts like hell and you’re a weakling. Do your back and butt look like that of the picture below on the right, labeled “lordosis of the spine”? If so, then keep reading.
Now you’ve realized you have this deep arch in your back, and that your butt sticks out considerably. When your butt sticks out, that probably is a result of your pelvis tilting anteriorly (or forwardly). When you have a deep arch your back, that comes from the excessive curving in your lumbar spine. This is known as lordosis – the exaggeration of the curvature in your lumbar spine. All of this bending and curving leads to extra force being put on your spinal disks, even while at sitting or standing. Imagine what damage can occur if you have these conditions during heavy exertion.
For all of the readers who’ve come here after reading my Squat series, here’s the fun part. In my Butt Wink article, I discussed how the spine handles force when it is neutral vs. when it is bent. In short, the spine can take more of a beating when it isn’t rounded or over-arched. So if you look like this when you squat (in the right figure below)…
…then we’ve got some fish to fry, don’t we? Please do not ever overhead squat with this type of sick spinal arching. Ever.
So, one of the main factors attributing to the over-arched back and anterior pelvic tilt is tight hip flexors. This muscle group originates at the pelvis and spine, and inserts into the femur (upper leg). Look at the following picture to see what tight hip flexors can do…
The red line is your pelvis, blue line is your femur, and the orange line is your hip flexor. Looking at each three scenarios, the orange line is the shortest in the “anterior tilt” drawing, AKA the one with the over-arched back. This association occurs when the length of the hip flexor shortens. When it shortens, it pulls the pelvis forward (or, anteriorly) towards the femur, and causes an arch in the back.
Why do the hip flexors get tight, you ask? Well, we as humans all tend to have this one very bad habit…
Yes, sitting, the cause of all or our peril! When we sit, our hips are pretty much “stuck” in flexion. When we don’t get up for hours at a time, our hip flexors get nice and tight.
Kelly Starett of MobilityWOD has a video on his blog in which he talks about the psoas muscle (one of the hip flexors) and demonstrates a stretch this wonderfully tight bad-boy. If you’re not interested in him talking and just want to see how the stretch is performed, skip the first four minutes.
Unfortunately, there are usually other causes aside from tight hip flexors. See in the previous graphic how tight hips draw the pelvis forward? Well, muscles usually have antagonists (think biceps vs. triceps), so if one muscle is tight, its antagonist is usually lax or under-active.
The hip flexors are opposed by the glutes. By looking at the picture above, you see as the hip flexors pull the pelvis forward, the glutes are unable to pull them backward. Strong, active glutes should oppose the hips. Also, tight erectors exacerbate the problem by pulling the back-side of the pelvis towards the back-side of the spine. Abdominals oppose the erectors but cannot correct this issue if they are weak.
This cluster of imbalance is known as “lower-cross syndrome”. The name comes from the fact that if you draw a line between the weak muscles and draw another line between the tight muscles, the two lines will create a cross, or an “X”, over the pelvis.
So, we already know to stretch the hip flexors. What else? If our glutes are weak, we should be focusing on them, too. Glute bridges are great for some activation and strengthening.
Avoid arching your back with these, as that’s a common mistake.
As for the abs and erectors, there are varying opinions on core training. In my opinion, doing hundreds of crunches and rounding your back to stretch the erectors are just unnecessary stresses on the disks in your spine. My opinion is the same if, vice versa, you were to hyperextend your back to strengthen your erectors. However, I am neither a medical doctor nor a physical therapist, so take everything you read with a grain of salt. There’s debate over how to properly train the core to protect the spine (try googling “McKenzie method” and “Stuart McGill” to see the two sides of the debate). I’ll have a post soon about core training.
With that said, stabilization work, such as planks and glute bridges, should be an okay way to start strengthening your abdominals and glutes.
I posted this video on another post, with the suggestion of using this exercise for lumbar erector activation, but it is also awesome for glute strength.
One final word about lower-cross syndrome: If you have this condition, play around with your posture. Stand by a mirror, contract your glutes, contract your lower abdominals, push your groin forward, and see how you look with different ranges of pelvic tilt and lumbar arch. If you can get into the right posture, see if you can maintain it all day. Keep squeezing those various muscles and try to make your new posture a habit.
Have fun pelvic thrusting.