5 Ways to Loosen Up Your Tight Back
Let me set the scene for you.
It’s first-year university.
I’m back to the bottom of the totem pole.
I’m not that tall – 5’9 3/4”.
I do have a bit of muscle,
But I feel I can enhance the apparent size of my chest by sticking it out.
Plus, I want to keep my posture on point from all the sitting I’ll be doing in the library.
Plus, I want to look a little taller.
So, here’s what I did:
I arched my back,
Puffed out my chest,
And tried to establish my dominance as the alpha male of the university.
Now, I’m sitting around 5’9 5/8”,
My chest looks bigger,
And I look like I have “good posture”.
Fast forward a couple years and my back is sooooo tight.
A couple deadlifts and my back would cease up like the brakes on my 2005 civic.
I needed to sit down after 10 minutes of walking around Costco.
And my back hurt when I did push-ups, like really hurt.
What was going on??
Well, turns out I was “fixing my posture” the wrong way.
Arching the back like I did produced a whole host of issues.
What I should have done was open the chest by pulling the shoulders back slightly.
Nonetheless, my attempt to develop better posture,
And to establish myself as an alpha male,
Resulted in me getting pretty debilitating back tightness.
Dr. Janda is a physician from the Czech Republic who came up with the concept of “lower-body crossed syndrome” and “upper-body crossed syndrome”.
Which explains muscle imbalances around the hip and shoulder joints.
Essentially, the term “crossed” indicates that muscles diagonal from one another will experience the same imbalance.
So, if the low back muscles (thoracolumbar extensors) are tight, then the hip flexors will be tight too.
And if the glutes are weak, the abs will be weak as well.
That’s what was going on in my body.
My hip flexors were as tight as bridge-wire,
My back was tighter than a Chinese finger trap,
My abs were Homer Simpson-lazy.
And my glutes were as inactive as those kids that sit on the stage in gym class.
And it just fed into itself, the more I didn’t use my glutes and abs when I did exercises like deadlifts,
The tighter my back and hip flexors got.
The tighter my back and hip flexors got,
the weaker my glutes and abs got.
It was a vicious cycle.
There were times when I just lay in the fetal position after a workout just to take the pressure off my back.
It was dumb.
But I didn’t know any better.
Note: This is just one of many reasons for low back pain. The information in this article is by no means an attempt to teach you how to cure, rehab or alleviate all types of back pain. Please consult with a professional if you have any sort of back pain that could be made worse by exercise.
It wasn’t until I got into Eric Cressey that I started to realize that this was my problem.
He not only taught me about Janda’s “crossed-syndromes”, but he taught me exercises to remedy this issue.
Specifically, how to mobilize the hips,
How to properly strengthen the abs,
How to strengthen the glutes,
How to breathe,
And how to stand so you don’t your back doesn’t feel like a ceased up mini-van.
Hip Flexor mobility
Tight hip flexors are involved in the excess forward tilting of the pelvis that makes the back tight.
Opening up your hip flexors with these mobilizations is a great way to get started on alleviating your extension-based back tightness.
Wall hip flexor mob
Hip flexor rolling (throwback to ’13)
As we discussed at length in this article here, the true role of the core is to resist unwanted movement at the spine.
Excess arching or extension is one of those movements the spine needs to resist.
To do this, focus on anti-extension exercises like:
Wall press abs
The glutes often get lazy with lower-body crossed syndrome.
The position of the hips causes the glutes to lengthen and as a result get weak.
Therefore, we need to teach these guys to turn back on.
Here are some of our favourites for this:
Prone 1-leg glute activation
Improper breathing can result in excess extension of the spine.
Therefore, focus on having balanced breathing between your belly and your chest.
When performing breathing exercises, you should be able to feel the air filling up not just your belly and your chest,
But also filling up your sides and your back too.
You should feel your whole trunk filling up with air.
We talked about this here.
Our favourite drills to practice this are:
Often times, people end up standing like I did,
With their chests out,
And backs arched.
This creates a whole lot of tension in your back.
Two quick cues you can use to help ease up on that tension is:
2-Roll your tailbone towards your belly button
This takes the load off the back and puts it on the abs.
And according to Kelly Starrett, you should try to keep 35% tension in your abs at all times.
So anytime your back feels tight from standing for an extended period of time,
Reaching overhead to get a dish from the top shelf,
Or pumping iron at the gym,
Pull your ribs down and roll your tailbone towards your belly button.
Exercises that may make it worse but….
There are certain exercises that lend themselves to more back arching.
But, here’s the deal.
They’re not all bad.
They’re actually a great opportunity to work on resisting the tendency to arch your back.
You may just have to lighten the load a little bit.
Just like one of my sport performance mentors, Loren Landow, used to say:
“To make yourself tolerant to snake bite, you need to take in a dose of venom”.
Here are some great opportunities to make yourself tolerant to snake bite (or the tightness that results from back-arching):
When you go down in a squat, many times the tendency is to arch the back to stay upright.
This results in the back getting tiiiiight!
To combat this, keep your abs tight,
And push your knees out slightly,
Reach back your hamstrings (posterior thigh) instead of your butt.
Just like with squats, many times the first motion in the hinge is to arch the back.
Instead, keep the abs engaged,
Keep your ribs down,
And move your hips back to the wall behind you.
3-Bench press variations
With your back on a bench and your feet on the floor,
There is a tendency of the back to arch off the bench.
Fight this by:
a. Tightening your abs and flattening your back against the bench
b. Elevating your feet on blocks
c. Putting one foot on the bench
d. Combination of all or some of the above
4-Overhead presses or anything overhead
Anytime you place your arms overhead, the core has to work extra hard to prevent arching in the back.
Arching may occur because of a lack of range-of-motion in the shoulders,
Or a lack of stability in the core to fight against the increased challenged imposed on it from taking the arms overhead.
Fight back against this by:
a. Working on shoulder range-of-motion with the back-to-wall shoulder flexion drill
b. Pulling your ribs down when you take your arms overhead
This goes for reaching to the top shelf of the cupboard as well.
Remember what I used to do?
I would open up my chest by arching my back.
We want our clients to pull their shoulders back and down when rowing but sometimes their default pattern is to arch the back instead of pulling the shoulders together.
Fight back against this by:
a. Keeping the ribs down when rowing (are you sensing a theme here yet?)
Note: if you are doing cable 1-arm rows, placing the hand on the ribs to ensure they stay down is also a great strategy.
b. Feel your shoulders come back and down as you row. Think about pinching a pencil between your shoulder blades.
We don’t do a ton of these but when getting to the top of the curl, people may arch their back to complete the motion.
Again, fight this by keeping your ribs down as you curl.
A push-up is a moving plank.
Your core holds your spine in position as your arms move your body up and down.
If your core fatigues before your arms do, your back will drop into an arch reminiscent of an angry cobra.
Fight back against this by pulling your ribs down and rolling your tailbone towards your belly button.
Often, when standing and walking, extenders tend to hang out with their backs arched.
It’s actually quite easy as it doesn’t require a ton of muscular action,
And our bodies are super good at finding the path of least resistance.
So, when you’re walking and standing around,
Again, tighten your abs by pulling your ribs down and rolling your tailbone to your belly button.
When it comes to keeping your spine in a good position, don’t overthink it.
You’ll probably know when your back is out of position because it will start to get tight…
And even hurt!
So, use that as a sign to pull your ribs down and roll your tailbone towards your belly button.
And don’t forget that a healthy dose of hip mobility,
Can get your back on track in no time!