When athletes push their limits on the way to finding the best version of themselves, they can push too hard.
This results in an ache, tweak or a minor injury. These minor issues — rather than catastrophic injuries — are what we’ll address in this article, with a 30-day program to rebuild your lower back from a nagging issue.
When looking at the common back injuries associated with CrossFit, we are often looking at three different kinds of problems:
Weakness, compensation, and lack of muscle activation
Mobility issues resulting in inability to find the proper positions
A combination of both
Why is your Back Weak?
We sit on our butts all day (almost) every day. This takes our biggest, most powerful muscle groups — like out glutes and hamstrings — and shuts them off. They are no longer being used, and so they become hard to activate when we need them. This also causes atrophy, the muscles themselves getting smaller and wasting away. Not very good for squatting (and it doesn’t look so hot either).
What is Compensation?
When you start CrossFitting, you are deadlifting and squatting a lot more than you were before, but your butt and hamstrings still aren’t working as much as they should be, an artifact of all that sitting.
This means that other muscles take over the work where you butt and hamstrings are falling short — the small muscles in your lower back take on too much, get overwhelmed, and then we see backs “go out”.
Step 1 to Fixing Your Back: Turn Off the Pain
First we need to get the pain gone. Whatever the movement is that fired your back up we need to stop for the short term, getting pain out of the equation.
This means that if you were full squatting when you flared your lower back, we limit depth. It you were deadlifting or pulling from the floor, we go from the hang position or pull from an elevated position.
Step 2 to Fixing Your Back: Turn on the Butt
Replacing the movements we removed (or limited), we’ll add volume back in with special pre/rehab exercises meant to turn on your butt, allowing it to make the correct contribution to future movements.
Here are the easiest and simplest exercises to activate those glutes:
Reverse Hyper (with weight/without backwards on GHD)
Step 3 to Fixing Your Back: Mobilize those Hips and Hamstrings
When athletes get short through the hamstrings (common with excessive sitting) it is extremely hard to get into the correct positions for proper, safe movement, making for lifting that is a positional mess.
When our position is off then we don’t lift with the right muscles and this fries those muscle groups in a bad way.
If you have tight hamstrings you’ll have a hard time setting up for pulling movements, unable stretch far enough to give your hips and hamstrings the necessary length to pull effectively — so naturally your body moves around this uncomfortable spot, losing your lower back alignment and creating a rounded back. This is bad news, and to be avoided.
Accordingly, here are some stretches and mobility drills to loosen your hamstrings and get you in the proper position for pulling:
Lower hamstrings/Upper calves (Down dog/3 leg dog video)
The 4-Week Back Fix Plan
Start with identifying whether you need activation, mobility, or both. Odds are it is partly both.
Begin each session by mobilizing the hips and glutes with one of the exercises linked above. This should be done prior to training, showing up early and getting the mobility work in, providing you the the range of motion you’ll need to do subsequent work.
Next, choose one of the activation exercises listed above to do prior to training. This way, you’ll sure start the session off with an active posterior chain and prep the right muscles for work, waking them up for what’s to come.
Be sure to avoid painful movements, limiting range of motion as necessary. We want to keep training with minimal to no pain.
After your main training session is done, do one more of the re-/pre-hab movements prior to walking out the door.
Rotate your mobility drills and activation exercises daily, and within 4 weeks you will be virtually pain-free, imbalances cleaned up. Still, your work doesn’t stop there. Continue doing your prehab exercise so the back issues won’t return — that is a sequel we don’t want to see. Once you fix it, keep it fixed, and do the maintenance necessary to stay strong.
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