How Your Hamstrings Can Provide Relief From Back Pain
Seven ways changing your routine can make a big difference.
By Annie Hauser February 23, 2017
Your 20s might seem too soon for back pain. But if you sit all day and do high-intensity fitness (or, worse yet, don’t exercise at all), you may soon see no one's too young for an aching back.
In fact, back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans younger than 45, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine .
For guys in their 20s, muscle or ligament strains or disc herniation after a specific mishap are often the culprit, says Steven Stanos, D.O. , the AAPM president-elect and the medical director of pain services with Swedish Health System in Seattle. Or, the cause is "nonspecific low back pain, or pain not related to a single trauma, but related to obesity, muscle weakness, a genetic component, or a sedentary lifestyle,” he says.
When it’s just a nagging discomfort or stiffness, Alpesh A. Patel M.D., FACS , a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Northwestern University School of Medicine and the director of the orthopedic spine surgery program, says it should clear up in a couple of days.
But you need medical attention when the pain lasts for more than a week or two, or "red flags" crop up. "Pain in the legs, any sort of numbness or weakness in the legs or below the waist — or, most seriously, any sort of change in bowel or bladder habits, these are signs you need to be looked at," Patel says. (The last two should be considered medical emergencies.)
Whether you currently have back pain or not, adopting smart-spine habits when you're young can pay dividends in the long run. "A serious disc injury or other problem in the lower back can lead to chronic pain for many years, so [do] anything that can be done to live better and decrease the risk for that," Stanos says.
With this mind, here are a few guidelines to help rehab your back now, and protect it for years to come.
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Hone Your Hammies
"For a lot of guys, it winds up being the hamstrings they need to work on the most," Patel says. "If your hamstrings are really tight, the force your legs would be absorbing will be absorbed by your lower back instead."
Steve Reese, M.S., L.A.T., A.T.C. , an athletic and personal trainer and owner of Cratos Performance in Clive, Iowa, suggests foam rolling — not just on tight areas, but as a comprehensive warm-up strategy. "It's a tool to get tension released throughout the body as a preventive measure," he says, noting that a trainer or physical therapist can help exercisers learn how to foam roll properly.
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Warming up before exercise — even just 5 to 10 minutes — can make a world of difference, Patel says.
Reese recommends a warm-up that gets the heart pumping and calls for dynamic movement front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotationally.
"Runners, for example, go straight ahead in a repetitive motion, so we want to move in multiple planes and get more movement laterally, through a position like a lateral lunge," Reese says. Basic rotational movements, as well, warm up the back.
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Excess weight can harm the back, especially as we age. "Most of my patients, when they tell me about their lower back, say 'I'm not as active as I used to be,'" Patel says.
Losing weight can help take strain off of your spine, plus starting exercise has back-friendly benefits: increasing blood flow to the spinal discs and strengthening the core, which can prevent future pain. Cardio, Pilates , and yoga are favorites Patel recommends.
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If you haven't quit smoking already, add your back to the list of reason to stop.
"Tobacco smoke causes vascular constriction, so it actually chokes off the blood supply to different parts of our body," Patel says. “It strangulates blood flow to vital organs, and the [spinal] disc is one of those. Discs have a very tenuous blood supply to begin with, so when you cut off the little bit they already get, they'll wear out earlier or to a worse degree."
Quitting smoking may also lead to healthier eating and exercise habits, which have downstream benefits for your back, Patel adds. Need some tips on kicking the habit? Take it from these three guys who quit smoking and shared their stories.
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Peep Your Posture
Check: Are you hunched over your computer? Craning your neck to scroll through Snapchat? When you catch yourself in these out-of-whack positions, you could be causing later muscle pain, Stanos says. “If I look at patients who have chronic pain, often their pain conditions start a long time before they actually have the pain,” he notes.
Reese says, "Think of taking a string and pulling your head to the ceiling. Have a small curve in the lumbar (lower) spine, with the chin slightly tucked in, and not bent forward."
One move— the elevated wheel —can help improve your posture by stretching the front body and releasing tightness in your muscles.
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Skip the Six-Pack
Your rectus abdominis, or six-pack muscles, look good at the beach, but don't do much for your spine.
"Instead, we want to train the transverse abdominis , the corset around the core and back," Reese says. "If people aren't firing there first, they are going to set themselves up for back pain. We want to identify and train these muscles — stabilizing our spine and protecting it, versus just flexing the six-pack muscles repeatedly."
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Go Back to Basics
You don't need to load a heavy back squat to see strength gains, Reese says. He has his clients, ranging from competitive athletes to seniors, who train single-leg squats instead. By focusing on unilateral strength, they're gaining the stabilization and firing patterns needed to squat safely, he says.
The takeaway for weekend warriors and athletes alike?
"I think the tough thing to do, especially when you're younger, is to understand the risks versus rewards," Reese says. "Some of the high-risk activities can tear down your body over time, so it's about training the right way. Start where you're at, and build from there — stair-step into more advanced training. That will help prevent injuries."