The back is a complex and often frustrating anatomical design causing millions of people around the world chronic discomfort and serving as a primary cause of poor exercise adherence. In 2014 the NHS declared that back pain was the leading cause of disability.
The root cause of back pain can differ although common causes include skeletal misalignment, muscle tissue damage and disease.
The lower back
The importance of the lower can cannot be understated. Together with the core muscles at the front of the body (abdominals and obliques) it forms the center point of the body, often referred to as ‘the core’.
The core is truly the hub of the body when it comes to exercise and performing movement patterns. It’s tasked with stablising the center point to ensure movement patterns are precise and energy is being put through the correct movement plane.
A weak core can not only lead to poor sports/exercise performance but it can also cause injuries within the torso or extremities as, over time, certain areas take the brunt of your output.
With this in mind it becomes apparent how connected the lower back is to the rest of your body and as such, makes the area itself often at risk to pain and injury.
Hamstrings and lower back pain
One common cause of lower back pain is tight hamstrings. The hamstrings consist of 3 muscles which run down the back of the upper portion of the leg, these are known as semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris. The primary role of the hamstring muscles is to create flexion (a bending) of the knee joint.
Due to the biomechanic function of the hamstrings they are incredibly overused in modern day society due to how much we typically sit.
With overuse comes tightness in the muscle because when you use a muscle, it’s flexed, and a flexed muscle is a shortened muscle.
If the hamstrings become chronically tight it begins to pull on the lower back because of where the hamstrings are anatomically positioned in relation to the lower back. This leads to a posterior rotation of the hips and a flattened back causing incorrect biomechanical alignment and pain/tension in the lower back. Symptoms outlined above can be further amplified through exercise such as running and weight training.
How to relieve tight hamstrings and lower back pain
As mentioned initially, the common cause of tight hamstrings is sitting. Many employees now opt for a standing desk for the option to take the bend out of the knees for a while, lengthening the hamstrings, improve posture and ease lower back pain. If your employer isn’t able to offer a standing desk, instead make sure you stand up and move around every half hour. Although we normalised it, it isn’t natural for the human body to sit in a chair for long periods of time, it’s a form of contortion that doesn’t favour any of us.
Standing hamstring stretch
We’re all familiar with the typical test measuring hamstring flexibility, the classic ‘can you touch your toes’ test.
If your in anguish by the time you lean down and touch your knees, whilst keeping the legs straight, it would suggest that your hamstring flexibility needs some work and is likely a major contributing factor to lower back pain you may be experiencing.
Although usually referred to as a test for being able to touch your toes, the standing hamstring stretch is a fantastic stretch to work on to develop more flexibility in the hamstrings over time. Be sure to progressively ease into the stretch (without bouncing). Once you’ve reached your maximum range hold the stretch for a minimum of 15 seconds before returning to the upright, starting position. Repeat this 4 to 5 times daily.
1. Keep your heels rooted to the floor and knees extended.
2. Begin to slowly lean forward at the hips keeping your back as flat as possible
3. Once you reach maximal range of motion, hold for a minimum of 15 seconds
Seated hamstring stretch
Very similar to the standing hamstring, but allows you to be more strict with keep the legs fully extended as the heel helps to halt any desire you have to bend those knees. Treat this as a progression from the standing variation and move onto the seated variation once your nearing the point of touching your toes.
1. Straighten your legs in front of you sitting on the floor
2.Flex your toes
3.With your legs touching, ease down towards your toes with your hands keep your arms straight and flexing at the hip
4.Remember to breathe deeply as it helps to relieve tension and create more range of motion
5.Once you’ve reach your maximal range of motion with the stretch (without bouncing), hold the stretch for a minimum of 15 seconds before returning back to an upright position with your torso.
PNF Hamstring stretch
PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) is an advanced, assisted form of stretching that allows for a dramatic increase of the range of motion of joints and improved muscle flexibility. The typical protocol of PNF stretching is a stretch to contraction ratio of 10-second stretch, followed by a 6-second isometric contraction (typically 60-100% of maximum muscle exertion) and then a further 30-second stretch.
It’s not recommended that you perform PNF stretching prior to maximum exertion exercise assist can lead to weakened muscle contraction. Instead PNF stretching should be performance post-exercise (1)
1.Lay flat on your back and raise one of your legs upwards
2.Have your training partner straddle the leg you have on the floor to ensure it doesn’t elevate of the floor
3. Your training partner will then need to hold your raised leg and begin to lean into it with their torso to initially stretch the hamstring whilst holding your knee to ensure your leg remains straight
4.Once the leg raised has been stretched for 10 seconds, keep the leg straight and push against your training partner for 6 seconds
5.Follow this by a further 30 second assisted stretch.
Tight hamstrings and lower back pain are often connected. It’s important to ensure the hamstring muscles don’t become too tight and taking precautionary measures to mitigate against this risk. This includes reducing the amount of time you’re sedentary, particularly the amount of time you’re sitting down. Furthermore – especially if you train hard, you need to ensure you’re stretching the hamstrings post-exercise. I’ve found with stretching it’s important to make an event out of it and ensure you’re dedicating a portion of your time each week to work of flexibility. If you’re prone to neglecting stretching book in yoga sessions each week. This will not only help with posterior chain flexibility, but total body flexibility and strengthening.
Kayla B. Hindle, Tyler J. Whitcomb, Wyatt. Briggs, and Junggi Hong. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): Its Mechanisms and Effects on Range of Motion and Muscular Function. Journal of human kinetics. 2012. 105–113.