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3 Myths Of Helping Low Back Pain

low back pain

Jessica Bento, Physical Therapist (Creator of DVRT Restoration, Shoulder & Pelvic Control Courses)

I like to believe what makes any physical therapist good is an opportunity to treat a host of different issues and work in different arenas of therapy. While most are familiar with the orthopedic side of therapy, there are many disciplines like neuro, pediatric, sports, and many more. For myself, I got to work in many of these different areas of therapy and I like to think that is what has allowed me to have a more holistic outlook on the body and helping people. Combine that experience with personally having gone through some really big health challenges myself I believe gives me a unique perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am not sure that going through health issues is something to be super proud of, but I can empathize greatly with people when it comes to low back, shoulder, and knee pain. You must be thinking geez she is a mess! Well, I’m definitely not in my twenties or my thirties for that matter. I trained hard when I was younger and was an athlete, with that came injuries. Injuries that included the low back and shoulders, so yes, I know what works, what doesn’t and what people can or cannot do with their injuries pretty well.

So when I see more and more information out there on how to relieve low back pain I kind of cringe, you know the ones, top five exercises to help with the low back, what you aren’t doing for your low back pain, the missing low back secrets you haven’t unlocked…you get the idea. I feel that some of these people espousing this information have never actually experienced low back pain or worked with people in pain with some of the exercises they are telling people to do as I know right off the bat how impossible some of those things would be for someone in pain to do.

Myth 1: Just get stronger

Telling someone that has low back pain to just get stronger, is like telling someone just go run a marathon when they have never ran before. Where do you even start?

I bring this myth up because the last thing I would want to do if I low back pain would be to heavy deadlift or squat more. Now I might be exaggerating because not all say that, but I see that all too often, heavy deadlift, more kettlebell swings, and you name it, being given to individuals suffering from low back pain. Coming from someone with a long history of low back pain, I will be the first to tell you those exercises would be the last thing I would want to do initially, I don’t think there would be any way I couldn’t even perform them without hitting the ground in pain if I had acute issues in my low back.

Not to say those are bad exercise but that’s not where I would start nor what I would value as a great low back “fixer upper”. Those are far more advanced than most people realize and require good movement patterns before we even delve into heavy loading or power based exercises. When you have low back pain you often have altered movement patterns.

low back pain

Being purposeful and knowing what we are teaching about a movement creates a much better result than just seeing how difficult we can make an exercise or how tired we can make someone. 

As world renown spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill explains, “Many therapy approaches have the objectives of strengthening muscle and increasing spine range of motion. This is problematic (Parks et al, 2003) since those who have more motion in their backs have a greater risk of having future back troubles. Strength may, or may not, help a particular individual as strength without control and endurance to repeatedly execute perfect form increases risk.”

That is why teaching foundational movement patterns is so important and taking our time making sure we are building control and the ability to repeat good movement is so essential in building better foundations to help low back pain. This is a big shift for many because we often like to think everything is a “strength” issue. In other words, if we just improved “this or that” muscle we would help low back pain issues. However, the science just doesn’t hold up to that line of thinking. Again, so well stated by Dr. McGill…

“deficits in motion and motor patterns have been documented as being more critical and thus should be targets for therapeutic exercise. For example, people with troubled backs use their backs more. Generally, they walk, sit, stand and lift using mechanics that increase back loads. Many of them have stronger backs but are less endurable than matched asymptomatic controls (McGill et al, 2003). They tend to have more motion in their backs and less motion and load in their hips.”

Its not all about Strength, getting stronger does not equal a direct correlation to improved low back pain. Especially if you don’t have a sold foundation when it comes to performing movements. This leads us to where to start. Start from the ground up building the foundations to movements like the deadlift or the swing. Great pelvic stability drills like the below are a wonderful please to bulked pelvic stability which is what a lot of people with low back issues need to build upon first.

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Why do exercises like these 5 #DVRT movements do a better job of helping low back issues than so many other movements you see online? Well, for one, we don’t think just about the low back. In many instances, the low back is just a victim of other parts of the body not working as they should. Thinking that low back strength is typically the issue of low back pain is a misguided approach to helping people be better. ___________ What I try to show in these 5 drills is how much pelvic control should be a focus of such programing than trying to strengthen any individual muscle. The ability to control our pelvis is foundational to our movement and making sure we are using the right muscles the right way at the right time! Unlike trying to strengthen the low back, pelvic control isn’t dominated by one or a few muscles. It requires all 35 core muscles to work synergistically to learn how to create the stable platform for our extremities to perform. ___________ The reason that I am using the Ultimate Sandbag in these movements isn’t because I help run DVRT 😆Rather, I often wish I had this tool when I began treating patients. The ability to use a weight to help build the connections to assist in teaching the body HOW to control the pelvis is so valuable to anyone. Many times we waste so much effort and time trying to cue aspects of the body that are sorely ineffective. Creating proper tension against the Ultimate Sandbag and the weight along with the joint angles it gives us makes the combination of understanding what we should be training and using the right tools to help teach how is exactly how we make people significantly better fast! ____________ Don’t just throw these exercises into your workout, think about what you are trying to teach and remember a few repetitions performed with great intent are far more powerful than a bunch of reps that are designed to make you just tired or sore!

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Learning to maintain these movement patterns in more sophisticated movements is key because our movement in life is often far more dynamic and varied than we see in the gym. Training our nervous system to coordinate such movements is so important in building that our body uses good movement habits for movement in life.

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Low back pain is tricky. There are so many variables at play, it is impossible to ever narrow things down to a singular idea, but there are things we SHOULD be focusing upon to help people get better. While the words strength gets thrown around a lot, the reality is when it comes to helping low backs it really isn’t strength as much as two other variables. ______________ Of the MANY ideas that spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill shares about low back pain, three that coaches can use immediately to make a big impact are developing better movement patterns , training the other planes of motion (especially frontal plane strength), and focusing on drills that help build core endurance. Yes, endurance is more highly correlated to low back health than strength! That means being able to tolerate positions and postures for longer durations without losing the movement pattern. That is why drills like bent over rows, as I show can help as an important foundation. _______________ Being able to hold the posture takes core control and endurance as to not become more vertical over the repetitions. The bent row is not only a great upper back exercise but core drill that many people overlook and add too much artificial support upon. ______________ We can also perform higher repetition deadlifts with moderate weight to both groove the hip hinge pattern and build that core endurance as well. Before we go heavy weight or power like kettlebell swings, we want this great core endurance. Adding these two #DVRT progressions we also add the other planes of motion that help bring in the most of the chains of the body that can help us reduce our low back issues. Sprinter stance is a subtle change in stability while our front load single leg good morning amplifies the core involvement in the hip hinge. ______________ Helping people find their better requires us to have a better understanding that training is more than just lifting a weight or counting reps!

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Myth 2: Just Stretch

When I started off as a therapist, the first thing I would do with my low back patients is get them on a table and hand them a stretch strap and tell them to go to town with their hamstring stretches, quad stretches and piriformis stretches…it was like ten minutes of just stretching and nothing ever changed. They still all complained of tightness.

What I didn’t understand was that it wasn’t really tightness, our body was putting on the breaks. What I needed to focus on was turning on the core so that the extremities could move better. You have heard us talk time and time again about proximal stability for distal mobility and this is where I should have started my patients, not static stretching but active core work as and initial warm up for them.

Famous physical therapist, Gray Cook, says it so well, “Tightness is often a way that the body uses parking brakes in the absence of real, authentic braking systems. The braking system that the body has is called motor control and it is finely tuned to input, processing and appropriate output. When a fault is present somewhere in that system—somewhere in movement, somewhere in that coordination, timing and symmetry—a dysfunction is observable.”

Motor control is best reflected in building quality movement patterns in varied environments. It is researcher, David Frost, that coined the saying, “keep the standard, change the condition.” Far too often we think that in only terms in adding more load or performing more repetitions, but as you see in DVRT we show that is a far more thoughtful manner. We use concepts like body position, load position, and planes of motion not to just challenge an exercise but to reinforce how to keep proper movement patterns in different environments while keeping our standard of movement.

low back pain

The exercises that actually make a difference in low back pain often don’t look like the typical “ab exercises” and aren’t the advanced drills that many in fitness promote. 

However, many times we have to first teach how to have that proper core stability and control. Our “tight” hamstrings for example are often a response to our body perceiving our spine to be unstable. When we create proper stability our nervous system takes those brakes off! Accomplishing the goal of providing such stability isn’t achieved just by doing a bunch of planks, heck, a lot of the drills that are most effective look like nothing that most have ever done before. Using patterns like lifts/chops, Around the Worlds, and such types of drills actually teach our body to activate deep core stabilizers that give our body true stability and can help low back pain quite a bit.

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I think if you are a good professional you can look back at what you did when you began and cringe, even a good amount. That is also the beauty of being a true professional. Being able to grow and learn to become better so you can help more people. When I look at things I would do as a young physical therapist, they do make me cringe. For example, I thought “tight” hamstrings were so common place, especially people with low back pain, I thought I was doing the right thing in having people stretch. However, as I have worked with #DVRT more it has opened my mind to thinking bigger about movement. ______________ As renown physical therapist, Gray Cook shares, “Tightness is often a way that the body uses parking brakes in the absence of real, authentic braking systems. The braking system that the body has is called motor control and it is finely tuned to input, processing and appropriate output. When a fault is present somewhere in that system—somewhere in movement, somewhere in that coordination, timing and symmetry—a dysfunction is observable.” ______________ When it comes to “tight” hamstrings it would appear that these drills have NOTHING to do with helping. However, they all build both reflexive core stability along with connection of our kinetic chains to give our body more stability. Through that stability, the nervous system “turns off the brakes” like Mr. Cook describes. Every tool we use has a unique attribute in helping us build these connections. ______________ Especially in drills like these it is about doing the highest quality rather than the hardest or most amount of reps. That is because we are priming the nervous system and the only way we get the desired result is thinking of the “little things” that make a big difference. We break down the how’s in many of our FREE blogs as you can see in the link in my BIO.

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Unusual looking drills like you see below are about stimulating that core stability that really addresses the true issues of low back pain. You can start simple and move to more complex environments as you see in some of these progressions.

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Building better mobility should play a big part of any good program. Having the ability to control one’s body through a good range of motion not only allows for better movement, but also gives a better “buffer” to injury resilience. However, spending an excessive amount of time on mobility can cause its own issues, especially neglecting other aspects of fitness that are also important. __________ Strength can play a big role in helping mobility if used correctly. The relationship of stability and mobility are huge and that means if we use our strength training movements to connect important kinetic chains of our body, then we can see rapid changes in mobility. __________ How do we do it? In this series of #DVRT movements we use these great training tools like the @ultimatesandbag and @perform_better bands and kettlebells to create connection of these chains. So, we aren’t using resistance to just make an exercise more difficult, but actually how to help our bodies work more efficiently.

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Myth 3: Its not all about the low back

Hopefully if nothing else, you have learned just in this blog post that low back pain isn’t necessarily about the low back. When we talk about the low back we tend to just focus right on the area that is hurting and not realizing that the pain is most likely the case of something much bigger going on. Typically as a young therapist, my protocol for low backs was hot pack, stretching, ultrasound a little manual therapy and then very old school pelvic tilts with a blood pressure cuff, bad bridges, maybe some clams, really really really bad bird dogs…pretty much everything I wouldn’t do today.

My approach begins like I had mentioned previously with building the solid foundation through a lot of the pelvic stability drills, focusing a lot on core activation and then progressing to more complex movements and exercises once the foundation has been build. Too ofter people just build that fountain and then they progress too quickly to movements that end up hurting them in the long run.

Probably the BIGGEST lesson I have learned over the years in working with patients and now in more fitness environments is that intent is everything. You can do a bird dog, you can do a plank, you can do a host of exercises that in most cases would be agreed upon to be good for low back pain. However, if you don’t have the right intent behind how you use your body and what you are teaching your body about better movement then you don’t get the result. The reason Josh and I can often get the “magical” results that other struggle in achieving is because we pay attention to how the movement is performed, not just that it can be or how difficult we make it. Below is a great example of how we teach something as “simple” as the side plank and break down important coaching points so you can get the results that truly makes difference in helping low back pain. That is what we are all about, how can we make a true positive difference for people.

Want to know more about how we coach, progress, and teach a system that makes a difference in how people perform, move, and live? Save 25% on all our DVRT Online Certifications and courses with code “sav25” HERE and get our DVRT Foundations program for FREE!