For as far back as I can remember I was told I needed to do more groundwork to fix my lower back. My lumbar spine has always been a little swayed. As a teenage ballet dancer, one of the most common corrections I got from teachers was, “Tuck in your popo!” (Which would be your ass, BTW.)
Now that my favorite hobby is running, I often see in running photos (especially during the last few miles) that it looks like I’m leaving my butt half a foot behind the rest of my body – not the most efficient form, nor the most comfortable. My husband knows that if there’s one place I’m going to seek a massage, it’s my lower back. All that arching leaves him constantly sore.
Physiotherapists, trainers, and coaches have all prescribed the same solution time and time again: lower abs work to strengthen that part of my body so that I can hold my spine in a better position. But no matter how many core strengthening exercises for lower back pain I add to my routine, I’ve never really been able to fix the problem.
When I told all this to movement coach and postural alignment specialist Emily DePauwshe wasn’t surprised at all.
“People think, okay, well if I strengthen my abs, then I can provide a support structure that will reduce instability in my spine. Iit makes a lot of sense because in front of your spine are your abs,” she says. “It’s not entirely uninformed thinking; it’s just an incomplete thought.”
That’s because, she says, core work won’t fix any imbalances or asymmetries in your torso. For example, when assessing my posture, she noticed that one of my hips was angled more than the other, and that leg naturally rotated further, throwing my spine out of balance and causing me to arch my lower back. back to compensate. “When you solve the rotation in the body, you can recruit your obliques and your transverse abs (deep stabilizers) much more symmetrically from right to left. And then you really strengthen (to better support) your spine, but you want to solve d address these imbalances,” she says.
She adds that even if weak lower abs is the reason for your lower back pain, it’s worth doing some Sherlock Holmes work to figure out. Why they are weak. “It’s not like those muscles ever decided not to participate and were weak for some arbitrary reason,” DePauw says. “Tthis is because they are not in a leverage position in which they should be used. OThe weakness in the core is due to misalignment, and you need to fix the misalignment first.”
“The weakness in the core is due to misalignment, and you must fix the misalignment first.” —Emily DePauw
If you think misalignment may be the cause of your own back pain, you’re probably right. “Almost everyone faces some sort of imbalance simply because of our lifestyles and habits,” says DePauw. This can range from sitting cross-legged to a habit of lean more on one hip than the other when you’re just standing, or even a hobby like surfing or snowboarding that forces you to favor one side.
You can quickly tell if you have an imbalance if, for example, you find that you always injure the same side of your body, if the bottom of your shoes wear unevenly between your left and right feet, or if you notice more strength or flexibility on one side of your body. Or you can do a simple test: stand up, close your eyes, and see if you feel like you have more weight in one foot than the other. A postural alignment specialist like DePauw or even a physical therapist could also help point out asymmetries and give you ways to correct them.
It’s not that we have to be Perfectly symmetrical. Just ask any professional tennis or golf player – they’ll probably never have the same strength on both sides, and that’s fine. “You just need to be functional,” DePauw says. This means balancing out any misalignment before working on things like core strength.
For my tilted pelvis and uneven leg rotation, DePauw gave me three short exercises I could do lying on the floor to retrain my hip alignment. After just a few days of regular practice, I noticed that my lower back was more flat against the floor.
“You’re going to get so much more out of your core work because you actually have better access to your abs,” she told me. “I’m definitely not vilifying abdominal work because it’s super useful, super important. You just want to position yourself to be successful first. Do that first, and then you’ll get a lot more juice from it. the compression.”