Posted by: thehungryrunner | September 15, 2009

Low Back Stiffness: An overlooked culprit (and solution)

In my work as a flexibility coach and yoga instructor, the most common complaint I hear is that of low back stiffness and discomfort.  Happily, I have also been witness to countless students and clients who have successfully alleviated this issue.  There is nothing like the feeling of gratification I get in knowing I have helped someone break up stressful movement patterns and establish the kind of strength and flexibility that keeps their back healthy and ready for anything!

So what have I found to be a major culprit in creating stress on the back in the first place?  Easy answer:  sitting.  Think of it.  At this moment, you are probably sitting.  You are probably also not sitting with “erect” posture (be honest, now!), meaning, your shoulders are rounded forward, you’re somewhat crunched down, and you’re probably somewhat asymmetrical — maybe one leg is further forward than the other, or you’re leaning slightly to one side.  I’m willing to bet your neck is extended slightly forward, and probably a bit tense, as well.

If most or all of this is true, here is what is happening to your anatomy right now:  your chest and front shoulder muscles are shortened.  Conversely, your upper back and the back of your shoulders are overstretched, contributing to (among other things) weakness in your rotator cuffs.  The front of your ribcage is dropped closer to your hips than is the back of your ribcage, which means your abdominal muscles and hip flexors are shortened, while your low back muscles are lengthened, which contributes to low back weakness and fatigue.  Your neck is overstretched in some areas, and severely shortened in others.  I don’t think I need to say what this does to the comfort of your neck and shoulders — you probably have a good idea, already.  And because of the position of your legs, your hamstrings and hip flexors (which are the topmost muscle on the front of your thigh, where your leg meets your hip) are shortened, while your glutes are on permanent vacation, further promoting weakness there.

Add it altogether and you have a number of forces that are inevitably going to worsen an already vulnerable low back.  I could go into detail as to why, but it can be summed up by saying the FRONT of your body is now excessively tight/short, while the BACK of your body is now weak/underused.  When you have this imbalance, the low back is chronically out of a neutral alignment, and worse, is constantly over-firing to try to overcome the tightness of the front of the body.  The result is that nagging stiffness that can be an awful ordeal to live with.

But there is a way to prevent and resolve this imbalance!  In the most simple of terms, you must slowly stretch and lengthen the muscles of the FRONT of the body, slowly build strength in the muscles of the BACK of the body, give your body stretches in the FRONTAL and TRANSVERSE planes (think side stretches and twists), and gradually restore your body to a NEUTRAL alignment.  I address the details of these steps in a number of my office, low-back, and stairway themed flexibility programs at, but to help get you started, here are some examples of the above in action:

Stretching the front of the body:  The muscles especially in need of this include the hamstrings, the hip flexors, the chest, the biceps and the abdomen (including the waist).  Examples of stretches may include doorframe-based chest stretches, a kneeling lunge to stretch the hip flexors, a forward bend with hands resting on a chair seat (to stretch the hamstrings), and the elbow-based cobra to gently arch the back and stretch the front of the trunk.

Strengthening the back of the body:   The muscles especially in need here are those of the upper back (trapezius, posterior deltoid, rhomboids, rotator cuffs), the low back muscles (erector spinae), and the glutes.  Examples of movements to help acheive desired strength include the bridge, the “superman” low back exercise, the cat stretch (done on hands and knees), the opposite arm-leg reach (can be done on the knees, more effective even if on the stomach), and a lunge twist (one arm reaching up for the ceiling).

Stretches in the frontal and transverse plane:  The reason for this is to give the body more dimensions of movement besides just the “forward-back” repetition which we experience every day.  An example of a frontal plane stretches would be the triangle, while an example of a good transverse plane stretch would be a supine spinal twist.

Restoring neutral alignment:  A whole book can be filled to describe neutral alignment of the body.  But here is the Cliff Note version:  Try the following 2 tests.  Test #1 — Stand with your back up against a wall, your heels about 2 inches away.  In an ideal neutral posture, the back of your head, your shoulders and your hips/glutes should be in contact with the wall, while your low back and the back of your neck should be slightly removed from the wall (neither one excessively curved or arched.  Your chin should be level (no cheating by lifing your chin to force the back of your head back!).  Test #2 — Lie down on the floor with your legs extended.  Lift your arms so as to reach the back of your hands to the floor behind your head.  If you were standing, this position would look like the top part of an overhead press.  Ideally, you should be able to keep your elbows FULLY STRETCHED and comfortably make contact with the floor with the back of your hands, without having to hyperextend your wrists.  If not, tightness somewhere in your body is preventing your shoulders, or back, or hips, or all 3 from achieving and maintaining a neutral alignment.  Over time, with the right stretches and exercises, this imbalance can be overcome.

So there you have it.  Yet another reason to give yourself a stretching break from sitting at least once a day!



  1. Wow! Great article. I am currently in the process of getting in shape – possibly for the first time ever, but working very hard. Well…pretty hard for me and seeing and feeling results – especially improved strength. After a very long and un dxd battle with dualing frozen shoulders following a fall that sort of dislocated my pelvis (and previous back injuries – one fx way back), I ended up pretty scrunched up and way out of alignment and once finally under care for shoulders it was a long road of PT and subsequent surgeries…all of which led to fear…fear of pain, fear of moving and fear of the gym. I’m finally back and in a semi personal training situation. As I am getting stronger I am searching for answers to tightness and stretching that seem to elude my trainer…intereting for sure. This article reiterates the concerns my PT in the spring was focusing on and reminds me that I know my body better than i’m given credit for. I am saving this thread so I can study not only this set of advice, but also to read your other articles. Thanks for reminding me of the things I know are still out of whack. Getting more flexible one day at a time. PS: it was googling tight calf muscles that led me here….

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