“If I am otherwise healthy and active, why does my lower back continue to give me problems?
I think this limits my abilities in my recreational pursuits like cycling, crossfit, running and obstacle races.
It does limit my daily activities from time to time. I have tried various techniques, but nothing has really worked all that well.
This is a question that was sent to me by a reader of Fit For Real Life. Every week, I get variations of the exact same question.
So in today’s post, we’re going to explore what to do if you’re healthy and your back hurts.
To be “pain free” is a fantastic goal. And, implementing a healthy active lifestyle is also a good thing to do.
But, the goal and the method aren’t mutually inclusive of each other. Sadly, you don’t automatically get a back that feels amazing just because you are active.
It seems like you should, but that’s not the case.
Think of it this way. While you might be a very active person:
- What kind of activity are you doing when active?
- What does the rest of your day look like with regard to movement?
The answers to these two questions will help to explain why you still suffer from back pains, and are equally important.
Let’s begin by looking into the first question.
Not All Activity Is Equal, And How You Move Matters
To make sure you aren’t suffering from back pain, even though you’re healthy, think of your workouts more like a ‘movement practice’.
And like any practice, what you focus on matters.
Are you telling your body all of the ways you want it to move? Or are you just moving?
Remember: not all activity is equal.
When I was first getting educated in kinesiology and biomechanics, one of the core fundamentals we learned was the three planes of motion.
The three planes of motion are the sagittal plane, the frontal plane, and the transverse plane. They are guiding tools for understanding types of movement and are one part of the vocabulary tool box for explaining the way a joint moves.
Here’s a quick example of each plane of motion:
- walking is a sagittal plane activity
- jumping jacks are a frontal plane activity
- swinging a baseball bat is a transverse plane activity
Ensuring you do different types of activities that get you moving in those three planes of motion is beneficial — no matter what your specific focus or goals are.
For example, I strongly encourage runners and cyclists to get a heavy dose of activity types that looks nothing like running or cycling. This is because the intensely repetitive motion of those activities in only one plane can cause those pains and injuries you suffer from, as a result of over-using one plane of motion (sagittal, in this example).
Good, Better, Best: The Types Of Activity You Should Do To Minimize Pains
As I close in on sixteen years working in the industry, my mindset about “types” of activity has shifted.
Moving is good. Moving in all planes of motion is better. Exploring all of the ways your body can move, and having a level of proficiency in as many of them as possible is best.
Here’s why: remember when you learned to drive?
You weren’t only taught to handle straight roads and dry pavement. Most of us were taken by a parent to parking lots covered in snow, we were taken out driving in the rain, and if we were learning stick-shift, we were taken to awkward hills where we’d have to really manage the clutch, brake, and gas all together.
You had to learn how to handle the oddball situations that are going to come up when you drive. It’s all well and good if you can drive on a straight, well-lit, dry road. But what do you do when you have to move through space and time in a somewhat abnormal way?
You have to bring it all together, because you don’t live your life in three perfect planes of motion.
You lean over at awkward angles. You don’t always hinge perfectly at the hips. Your ankles roll around on that awkward step off a curb.
When you aren’t prepared for moving in imperfect conditions, accidents and injuries are more likely to happen. Just like driving.
Sometimes you move weird. Be ready to handle it. Learn how to control your joints and tissues through their full range, not just their middle ranges.
Preparing Yourself For ‘Moving Weird’
Most people get strong in the middle ranges of their soft tissues and joints. Rarely do people think to train the end ranges of their tissues and joints – when the tissues are at their most lengthened or most shortened positions and the joints are at their greatest or smallest angles.
Here’s a talk I gave on “end range strength” if you want to learn more about that.
If you aren’t preparing your tissues to handle loads and positions that you may find yourself in during your “regular life”, you should assume your tissues will not be capable of handling those positions and loads when they do show up in your regular life.
Your body must get very specific signals if you want to restore, build, and maintain your body’s capability to feel good and move well, injury-free…
These signals are:
- Daily signals to remind your body what tissues it should continue sending energy and nutrients to and what joint range of motion you are using and your body should keep
- Regular teaching of your joints and tissues how to work at their current end ranges of strength so that your nervous system starts allowing you to expand your current range of motion
- Consistent stimulus that tells your body it should maintain the strength, control, and mobility, that you’ve been teaching your body to have
The Rest Of Life Outside Your Movement Practice
No matter how active and healthy you are outside of your work day, the reality is that if you sit at a desk for your work for some or all of your day – and you commute to that place of business – you are inactive for the vast majority of your day.
Even if you have a well-developed movement practice, and you have built foundational strength, it’s a drop in the bucket of inactivity we deal with in our modern lifestyles. You have devices in your hands at all times.
You are doing repetitive movements more than ever (typing, texting, tweeting, etc) – recent data has noted that the average person checks their phone 60 times per day (I’d guess more often if you’re active on Tinder).
Your body needs a signal to cut through the noise of modern-life. The signal needs to say “stay stacked!”, “stay mobile!”, “stay strong!” And so, how you use the time during the rest of your day, outside of your movement practice time, will absolutely impact something like your back health. Send the right signals. Be mindful of your body and the positions you’re putting it in.
If you’d like to learn the Daily Movements Series I use every day to send better signals to my body, plus read more about how the signal/response relationship works in your body, you can read my book, The Movement Manifesto.