Got low back pain? It might not be your back. It might be your glutes – or lack thereof.
If you work in an office, chances are you sit a lot, maybe even all day. Chronic sitting can lead to muscle imbalances and even cause some muscles to go completely dormant. If you’d noticed that you suffer from chronic lower back pain, but haven’t been able to pinpoint the cause, your lower back pain may be due to lower cross or lower crossed syndrome. The good news is, you CAN recover with some exercises throughout the day, and a yoga sequence designed to fire the muscles that have gone night-night.
You may have noticed that no matter what you do, your low back and hamstrings always feels tight or sore. The problem may NOT be originating in the low back at all. Muscle imbalances from sitting or inactivity can lead to weak or dormant glutes and abs, leaving your psoas, hamstrings and low back contracted and tight. In fact, it’s possible your glutes aren’t firing at all.
Here’s a test. When you get up from your chair, do you press into your heels and stand nearly straight up or do you tend to lean way forward before standing? Conversely, if you lift your arms overhead, and do a squat (as if sitting in a chair), does your rear end jut way out behind you? If you answered yes to the above questions, your glutes aren’t firing. This means your back and knees are doing all the work.
So, what is lower crossed syndrome?
Lower-Crossed Syndrome (LCS) . In LCS, tightness of the thoracolumbar extensors (lower back) on the dorsal side crosses with tightness of the iliopsoas and rectus femoris (hip flexors) . Weakness of the deep abdominal muscles crosses with weakness of the gluteus maximus and medius. This pattern of imbalance creates joint dysfunction, particularly in the lumbar spine (low back), SI joint, and hip joint. Specific postural changes seen in LCS include anterior pelvic tilt, increased lumbar lordosis, lateral lumbar shift, lateral leg rotation, and knee hyperextension. If the lordosis is deep and short, then imbalance is predominantly in the pelvic muscles; if the lordosis is shallow and extends into the thoracic area, then imbalance predominates in the trunk muscles (Janda 1987).
Of course, be sure to visit your doctor and / or chiropractor to be sure you don’t have any disk disease, acute injury, or spinal issues that may be causing your pain.
Once you know what you’re dealing with, there are some ways to recover throughout the day as well as specific exercises and yoga poses to help retrain your muscles to work for you again, in the right order.
Exercises to do at work to keep your muscles engaged
First and foremost, be sure to get up and move around periodically. And, set a reminder for yourself to do these short exercises throughout the day (you don’t even have to leave your seat for a few of them):
- Glute squeeze. Move to the edge of your seat, and press your heals into the floor, you’ll immediately feel your glutes engage. Do this 10 times, holding for a count of 5 each time.
- Brace yourself. Engage your abs as if you’re bracing yourself to get punched in the gut. Hold for a count of 5, and do this 5 or 10 times. Don’t forget to breathe!
- Suck in your gut. Pull your lower abs and belly button in toward your spine, and contract your ribs as you’re posing for a picture in your bikini. Hold for 5 breaths. Do 5 of these.
- Cat cow. If you don’t have a desk, a countertop is great for this one. extend your arms long on a countertop, and move through some gentle cat / cow movements to get the blood flowing, release compression in the spine, and break up and calcification.
With these exercises, eventually you’ll train your abs to support your low back throughout the day, and your glutes will relearn how to work.
Yoga sequence for lower crossed syndrome
Before you embark on your beloved sun salutations, which can really stress already tight hammies and backs, let’s start from the ground up.
- Get the blood flowing a little by walking in place, or stepping up and down on a bottom step (using your glutes to press you up and down)
- Come to easy seated pose on a blanket to elevate your hips
- Gently twist to one side and the other (no deep twists here, just lubricating the spine a little)
- Cat / Cow. Roll over to hands and knees for some cat /cow (do a few of these to get the spine moving, but again nothing too deep especially if you’re not warmed up)
- Alternate leg / arm raises. From a table top position (with belly engaged to support low back) extend your right let behind you just hip height and your left arm in front of you. Keep your hips level, your toes flexed , and your neck long. Hold for 5 breaths and switch sides.
- Plank tucks. Step your legs back into top of a push-up. Pull your belly-button in toward your spine, press through the heels, back is flat and supported by abs, shoulders are strong (not sagging). Hold for 30 seconds, then lower just your knees by pulling your abs in and lift back to plank. Do 10 – 15 reps.
- Sphinx roll-ups. Lie on your belly, propped up on forearms (elbows are under shoulders). Starting with your low abs, contract your abs slowly lifting your belly, pelvis, thighs and knees slightly off of the mat using just your abs. Reverse just as slowly and do 5 of these at least.
- Downdog. From plank, use your abs to pull you back into downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Keep arms and legs active, low belly is engaged.
- Low lunge. Step your right foot forward inside your right hand. Keep the back leg long and the front knee over the ankle, sink forward for a gentle opening in your left front hip (psoas). Stretch arms over head. Hold for 5 breaths. Switch to other side moving through downward facing dog.
- Runners stretch. Move back into a low lunge on the right, and slowly shift your hips back, straightening the front leg for a gentle hamstring stretch. Flow forward and back from low lunch to stretch a few times, then hold the stretch for 5 breaths. Switch sides by moving through downward facing dog.
- Chair pose. From downward facing dog, gently walk your feet toward your hands until you’re in a gentle forward fold with knees bent. Press into your feet, roll yourself up to standing and with feet parallel and hip distance apart, immediately sink into chair pose. Arms in front of you, back is neutral. Hold for 5, exhale stand. Build up to 5 or 10.
- Sun Salutations. Now that you’ve warmed up all parts of your core, you may move through a few rounds of Surya Namaskar C, A and B. Take heed of your low back and hamstrings. Rather than swan diving forward into a fold you may not be ready for, bring your prayer through center, and bow forward with bent knees. Then see how open your hamstrings are. End with nice child’s pose break for a few breaths.
- Trikonasana & Warrior II Once you’ve moved through a few rounds of sun salutations, you can add in some standing poses such as Warrior II and Trikonasana (Triangle pose) to engage the glutes and relieve low back tension. Again, come back to downward facing dog, and sink back into child’s pose.
- Almost bridge. Come to lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the ground hip width apart. Rather then pressing up into a huge back bend, just press your heels into the ground as if you’re going to come into bridge, but hover a few inches off the ground. Notice you’re only working your glutes here. Hold for 5 breaths, and do about 15.
- Ab squeeze. Another small movement. Bring your feet off the ground so your shins are parallel. Place your hands on your knees. On an inhale, squeeze your legs together, and on an exhale, press your hands into your knees and your knees into your hands. Hello, abs. Welcome to the party. Do 10 rounds.
- Release the back. Windshield wiper your knees side to side to release any tension, eventually lowering your knees to one side. Hold for a few breaths and do the other.
- Savasana. Your muscles have worked hard, but hopefully your mind did not. Enjoy 5 minutes of quite and allow your practice to sink in.
As someone who has to work to overcome the ills of working at a desk all day, I will tell you this sequence is a life saver. Enjoy!
– Your Charmed Yogi
Photo: Max Form