How and Why You Should Relax Your Lower Back
Dr. Edythe Heus
January 22, 2024

One reality about the human body that many of us tend to forget is that it’s an interconnected system. It functions as a whole unit rather than a collection of isolated parts.

So we disregard tension in one part of the body as a localized problem, not realizing that it can cause a chain reaction of issues throughout the entire system.

The lower back, in particular, is one region in the body where you store a lot of tension. Athletes are especially predisposed to having a tight lower back because of intense activity.

This tightness leads to all sorts of problems in the body that contribute to a decline in physical health and sports performance.

The solution to this dilemma sounds simple enough. But you’d be surprised at how challenging it can be to relax the lower back.

Here’s how you can practice it and why it’s well worth the effort to try.

The Fascia: The Web Holding the Body Together

To understand how tightness in the lower back inhibits movement along the entire body, you must first gain insight into the fascia and how it works.

The fascia is an interconnected web of collagenous protein and elastin fibers that coat every single part of the body. It surrounds, protects, connects, stabilizes, and compartmentalizes our muscles, bones, and organs.

One of the key functions of the fascia is balancing the tension and compression around our organs, thereby providing structure to the body. This tensional situation changes in response to stress applied to the fascia.

When there is tightness in one area of a fascial chain, the entire chain experiences tension as well. This stiffness leads to a reduced range of motion more distantly in the body.

The Thoracolumbar Fascia

The length of the back, from the thoracic (upper and middle) to the lumbar (lower), is spanned by the thoracolumbar fascia (TLF).

This connective tissue has three layers covering the deep muscles of the back, which stabilize and facilitate movement of the spine. These include the:

  • quadratus lumborum,
  • Transversospinales,
  • erector spinae, and
  • multifidus muscles.

The TLF also serves as an attachment site for muscles in the trunk and pelvic region. Large muscles such as the trapezius muscle, latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings all connect to the TLF.

Being such a central fascial sheath, the TLF plays a significant role in transferring load between the spine, pelvis, and limbs. For instance, the way it connects the latissimus dorsi and gluteus maximus promotes the coordination of the upper and lower limbs. You can observe this with how your arms and legs swing opposite one another while walking and running.

What Causes Tightness in the Lower Back?

Various factors can contribute to tension in the lower back. Underlying conditions such as osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia are common culprits. However, lower back tightness can stem from everyday circumstances as well. These include:

Muscle Overuse and Strain

Straining and overworking lower back muscles can cause stiffness in the lower back.

Tightness usually occurs after strenuous activities such as running long distances and weight lifting. Even exercises targeting a different muscle group, such as suspended push-ups, have been found to overload the lower back.

It can also crop up after repetitive movements during sports or occupational activities.

Scholars speculate that this tightness is our nervous system’s way to minimize pain and further injury.

Improper Posture

Poor posture places a lot of stress on our bodies, weakening our muscles. Misalignment also causes instability within the body, triggering it to tighten certain areas. Both of these lead to tension in the lower back.

This effect has been shown in the available literature. Researchers have found that maintaining a slumped sitting posture for prolonged periods increases lumbar muscle stiffness.

How Does a Tight Lower Back Affect the Rest of the Body?

Lower back stiffness has been associated with fear of movement (kinesophobia), reduced range of motion (especially when moving the spine forward), and an overall decline in physical health.

While the mechanisms that relate these factors with a tight lower back are not entirely clear, I theorize that it has to do with fascial damage and muscle imbalances.

Fascial Damage

Damage in the TLF becomes one of the mechanisms by which stiffness in the lower back creates a negative ripple effect on the body.

The abovementioned factors causing tightness in the lower back also take a toll on the TLF. Injury and overuse cause the hyaluronic acid lubricating the fascial layers to become densified. This densification prevents muscles from gliding smoothly, inhibiting movement.

Muscle strains also impact the fascia directly. A systematic review found that lesions (abnormal damage to tissues) in the fascia are highly prevalent among athletic muscle strain injuries.

Muscle Imbalances

Tightness in the lower back is characteristic of and is usually coupled with imbalances in the body. When the lower back is tight, the following problems are also usually present:

  • the pelvis pulls forward, resulting in an anterior pelvic tilt;
  • the lower back overarches, causing the belly to jut out and the abdominal muscles to relax;
  • the hip flexors tighten.

These issues lead to even more unwanted effects on the body. An anterior pelvic tilt causes the hamstrings to lengthen, predisposing them to injury. Meanwhile, the inability to activate the abdominal muscles hampers core stability. Lastly, tight hip flexors contribute to lower back pain and compromise trunk strength.

How Do You Ease Tension in the Lower Back?

Holding tension in the lower back may seem like a minute issue at the moment, especially if you are young. But the effects definitely compound over time. So, it’s crucial to get into the habit of relaxing it now.

Unfortunately, relaxing the back (the fifth of the six Rev6 Essentials) is not as easy as it sounds. It can take months and even years of practice to access this essential.

It becomes more manageable once you have tapped into the first four of the Rev6 Essentials, which are as follows:

  1. Mind your feet
  2. Hollow your abs
  3. Lift your torso (lengthen the spine)
  4. Float your head

With these essentials in place, you can allow your tailbone to drop down as if there were a small weight attached to it. Releasing the tailbone this way causes the intervertebral discs to expand, augmenting the lengthening of your spine.

Dropping the tailbone is also beneficial for spinal and pelvic stability. The tailbone, along with the sit bones, supports your body when you sit. It is also the attachment point of many pelvic floor muscles. Misalignment of the sacrum can lead to dysfunction in the pelvic floor, and pain and tightness further up the spine.

If you want to start practicing the essentials and putting into practice what you’ve learned today, make sure to check out our free foundation course: https://rev6.fit/foundation

Sources:

Ajimsha, M. S., Shenoy, P. D., & Gampawar, N. (2020). Role of fascial connectivity in musculoskeletal dysfunctions: A narrative review. Journal of bodywork and movement therapies, 24(4), 423–431. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbmt.2020.07.020

Alizadeh, S., & Mattes, K. (2019). How anterior pelvic tilt affects the lower extremity kinematics during the late swing phase in soccer players while running: A time series analysis. Human movement science, 66, 459–466. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.humov.2019.06.001

Benjamin M. (2009). The fascia of the limbs and back–a review. Journal of anatomy, 214(1), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7580.2008.01011.x

Chia M. & Li J. (2005). The Inner Structure of Tai Chi: Mastering the Classic Forms of Tai Chi Chi Kung. Simon and Schuster.

Karayannis, N. V., Smeets, R. J., van den Hoorn, W., & Hodges, P. W. (2013). Fear of Movement Is Related to Trunk Stiffness in Low Back Pain. PloS one, 8(6), e67779. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0067779

Kett, A. R., Sichting, F., & Milani, T. L. (2021). The Effect of Sitting Posture and Postural Activity on Low Back Muscle Stiffness. Biomechanics 1(2), 214-224. https://doi.org/10.3390/biomechanics1020018

Konrad, A., Močnik, R., Titze, S., Nakamura, M., & Tilp, M. (2021). The Influence of Stretching the Hip Flexor Muscles on Performance Parameters. A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(4), 1936. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18041936

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