I need a Torg-Over.
April 30, 2012 8:35 AM   Subscribe

I have a bad back, which I think arises due to a combination of 1) weak core muscles; 2) extremely tight hamstrings; and 3) bad posture. I would be very grateful for any tips for addressing these issues.

1) Weak core. Looking to do some sit ups. Are those sit up tools (Ab Rollers, etc.) worthwhile? Any other exercises I can do?

2) Hamstrings. Super tight. I walk like Torgo. I stretch my calves on the stairs at work, and I need to get more into floor stretches at home. Is there a particular timetable for getting the most benefit from stretching (i.e., stretch my hamstrings 2 minutes every hour or something)? Assisted stretching? Ballet bar? One of those Pro-Stretch things?

3) I slouch terribly--but not only that, I arch my lower back and tilt my pelvis at the same time. I end up contorted like a Rob Liefeld heroine. Short of wearing a corset, how do I stop?

Ow. Thanks for any help. I'd also love to hear success stories from anyone who stretched their way to a happy back!
posted by Admiral Haddock to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Yoga. Core strength, flexibility and body/posture awareness is exactly what it's for.
posted by overhauser at 8:37 AM on April 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of the best core/lower back exercises are planks, or at least that's what a doctor and physical therapist told me back when my back was in terrible shape and liked going out regularly.
posted by General Malaise at 8:43 AM on April 30, 2012

I always recommend Mobility WOD - it's got a video every day with different stretches and recommendations for how long to do them. There are some good at-work stretches in there somewhere, as well as tips for using soft-tissue-work tools like foam rollers and (my personal favorite) lacrosse balls.

Core strength will fix the slouching, mostly - but make sure you're working both your abs and your back. It's harder to work your back without equipment, and people sometimes neglect it, but some sort of pulling motion (rows, pull-ups, deadlifts - ideally all three) will help keep you balanced.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:44 AM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Most nyc gyms offer one or two free pilates sessions to lure you into buying more. Can you sign up for a freebie session somewhere?
posted by elizardbits at 8:44 AM on April 30, 2012

Callanetics helped my bad back a lot by strengthening my core muscles. The moves are deceptively simple but work very deeply. Callenetics will help hamstrings and posture too since many of the moves have ballet (stretching) influences.

You could also try Pilates which is very focused on core moves.

Another thing that helped my back was getting my bed just right for my body and how I sleep. For me that involves a firm futon mattress with a 2-inch memory foam topper over it. I hardly ever have back pain anymore (except when I'm pregnant).
posted by flex at 8:44 AM on April 30, 2012

If I were you, I would gently, comprehensively experiment with these books over time:

Awareness Through Movement
Magnificent Mobility
Trail Guide to the Body
The Egoscue Method Of Health Through Motion
The Core Program
Starting Strength

All of these books healed and caused damage at the same time. I had to do a lot of thinking and feeling and experimenting to mix and match and learn the correct "dose" for each exercise or stretch. I also ultimately had to make up some stretches that I didn't find in any book, after examining anatomy books.

Anyway, this might be overkill for you, or you might have zero time or inclination to do your own research and experiments. Maybe pick one and also go to a physical therapist?
posted by zeek321 at 8:45 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

My back has improved remarkably since I started doing pushups. I began with from-the-knees kinds of pushups, and can now do a goodly number of regular pushups. They're basically moving planks, and my core strength has definitely improved. As a bonus, I don't have a sore tailbone from doing crunches! I used the 100pushups site to keep me on track.

The slouching will begin to go away - or at least, will be easier to improve - when your core gets stronger.
posted by rtha at 8:45 AM on April 30, 2012

Seconding yoga; your question is practically a "reasons to do yoga" list. It will especially help with posture and tucking your pelvis in.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:46 AM on April 30, 2012

My trainer has me spending a lot of time with a BOSU Ball, and it's done wonders for my core strength. I don't have any back issues, per se, so I can't speak to that aspect. However, the BOSU is relatively cheap and there are dozens of core-strengthening exercises that you can do at home with it.
posted by bluejayway at 8:59 AM on April 30, 2012

I love yoga and I think it would potentially be good for your back. However, I would recommend Iyengar yoga as being the most super-focused on correct alignment and not pushing yourself past your limits. Yoga teachers vary a lot in quality and if you have a bad back already you want to be confident you're not going to damage it further, which would be easy with a teacher that doesn't correct enough or who allows you to push yourself too far.

I think pilates is more likely to address your core strength and postural issues at the beginner level.

Stretching your hamstrings is a great idea, but you need to be warmed up first, so randomly stretching throughout the day wouldn't work that well unless you're able to jump up and down for 5 mins first. Yoga helped my hamstrings more than 12 years of dancing did.
posted by kadia_a at 9:00 AM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the only way to truly change your posture is to consciously correct it many times per hour until it becomes a new habit.

I know people who have found Alexander Technique wonderful in helping them learn to move with better alignment. The yoga and pilates will strengthen or stretch muscles but you still need to be able to put yourself into a pain-free posture.
posted by kadia_a at 9:02 AM on April 30, 2012

I am much like you. I find regular yoga too challenging for my tight hamstrings and weak shoulders. I really love Scaravelli style though, not many people teach it, but it is really focused on the back and core. Very gentle.
posted by wingless_angel at 9:08 AM on April 30, 2012

1 & 3: Planks and pushups
posted by rhizome at 9:22 AM on April 30, 2012

Stretch, stretch, stretch! Treat Your Own Back has a lot of good ones. Definitely also do yoga.

My dad and I both love the Back Vitalizer.
posted by radioamy at 9:24 AM on April 30, 2012

Do you sit a lot at work? If you do, consider sitting on a yoga ball instead of an office chair. It forces you to sit up straight and engage your core and lower back. Disclaimer: My lower back hurt the first two weeks after I transferred over to the ball. I was so accustomed to slouching that the muscles weren't used to being used.
posted by Constant Reader at 9:31 AM on April 30, 2012

The one thing you don't want to do is sit-ups if you already have back issues. Look into reverse crunches or some other exercise that doesn't involve lumbar flexion (squats!).
posted by Loto at 9:42 AM on April 30, 2012

Hi, I suffer (and I mean SUFFER) from low back pain too. I had about 10 nearly pain-free years after my first few episodes by working on just what you're talking about. I slowly started to let myself get lazy, though, and have had a pretty excruciating last 6 months, until about 2 weeks ago when things started to get much much better again. So, you're right that you need to fix those things, and it is absolutely totally possible.

What I can tell you from my experience is that it's really super hard to target the right muscles on your own. I never EVER could have recovered without physical therapy. A physical therapist will tell you exactly which of your core muscles are weak and give you exercises to target them directly. For instance, 10,000 crunches a day wouldn't help me, because crunches don't work the (hip and very low ab) muscles that are actually causing my problem. Same with stretching. There are probably more tight things in need of stretching than you realize. Most importantly, the PT will make sure you're actually doing the exercises properly. It's really easy to do many of them wrong and end up simply compensating for your weak muscles in the way you already do in your daily life, rather than actually targeting them.
posted by juliapangolin at 12:45 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yoga success story: When I was in my 20s and 30s, I had a very unhappy back, with lousy posture and stubborn hamstrings. My back hurt so bad when I had to drive for >1 hour, I had to pull over to stand up and cry. I carried special seat cushions and ice packs to meetings and movies. At around 40, I started taking a beginners' yoga class. At first, it seemed so ridiculously easy that it didn't seem worth doing. Then, after a few weeks, I started to feel the benefits. Wow. My back pain began to fade away, and I started to feel strong and confident in my body. I've developed lots of serious health problems since then (just turned 60), but my back is still happy and strong. I'm able to do ~10 min of simple yoga each day, and it's enough to keep things in order. Learning a bit of yoga was the best thing I ever did for my body. Nice for the mind, too.

Hamstrings can be stubborn bastards, though. Work with them slowly and gently. Don't expect to look like a picture of a yogi -- just expect to learn how to let go of some unnecessary accumulated stiffness.
posted by Corvid at 1:04 PM on April 30, 2012

Let me also suggest Pilates, which has worked better for me than yoga.

Also a wobble board.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:15 PM on April 30, 2012

I, like many people have had back problems due to the exact same reasons as you. Tight hams (my wife actually laughed out loud when I showed her how far I could lift my leg straight out) and bad posture (I sit slouched on a stool all day at work). There are a lot of exercises that help but I found the hardest thing was doing it consistently. I would do it for a few weeks and my back would get better, then I would stop. This has included stretching, planking/pushups, yoga, p90X. Find something you enjoy doing and that you will continue doing in the long run, even after the back problems have been forgotten.
posted by drug_dealer73 at 1:22 PM on April 30, 2012

Like you, I have a weak core, tight hamstrings, and bad posture.

I started to make a lot of progress on the core strength and posture by following the technique recommended by Esther Gokhale. She did an hour-long talk at Google that goes over a lot of the stuff in her book. For me, her technique immediately clicked in a way that other posture information never had. You can probably get a lot of good out of just the video, but her book is quite good too if the stuff in the video works for you.

That said, the biggest help for me was getting a really good physical therapist. I know for me, though, it's not something I would have done without an acute issue (in my case, a car accident). If it's something you'd consider and can afford, go for it. Try to get a specific recommendation, though, because I've been to some pretty useless physical therapists, too.
posted by duien at 1:30 PM on April 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recently took a yoga workshop specifically on hamstrings, and what I learned was that in some exercises that people do, such as forward bending, the hamstring muscles are actually contracted so they're not being stretched even though it might feel like they're being stretched.

Here are two simple exercises she taught, which feel very good while you're doing them, and have worked for me. First one, stand facing a chair or table and raise one leg so the foot rests on the chair seat, back, or table. You want to pick a height where you feel a comfortable stretch in your hamstring - you'll work up to more height gradually over time. And, make sure you feel the stretch in the hamstring itself which is the upper two thirds (or so) of the back of the thigh. Your hips should be square to the chair or table with the standing foot pointing straight forward. Now just stand and feel the stretch for two minutes. Don't do anything, do not bend forward. Just stand. The teacher said that two minutes is the minimum time needed. You're sending a message to the muscle to relax and stretch.

With this first exercise you're also working the standing leg, but in the next exercise you're complete relaxed. Lie down in a doorway, one leg is straight on the floor and goes through the doorway and the other leg is up in the air and completely supported by the wall. If a 90 degree stretch is too much, adjust your body for less of a stretch. Again, stay here for at least 2 minutes on each side.
posted by daikon at 1:41 PM on April 30, 2012

You really, really, REALLY need to see a PT rather than getting advice from strangers on the internet. I have similar back problems, and according to my PT (who is a spine specialist), most of what other people have recommended above would be the worst possible thing I could do and would make things much worse. For example, my inclination is to do stretches like rolling my head around, touching my toes, etc., but these further compress my discs and contribute to the problem. To my understanding, I need to let my discs rest and recover first (assisted by the minor stretches, which were developed between me and my PT through a long process of trial and error and are completely unique to me), and then I can think about working out and building core strength/getting more flexibility.
posted by quiet coyote at 2:32 PM on April 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Agree with quiet coyote - after rereading your third item, you have something going on with your muscles that needs personal attention. Doesn't sound like run-of-the-mill tightness that so many of us have. General stretching and strengthening could make matters worse, or at best just waste your time. Find a good PT who can tailor something to you.
posted by daikon at 2:44 PM on April 30, 2012

Totally agree with juliapagolin, quiet coyote and daikon - definitely get thee to a PT. I went for what I thought was a pinched nerve (it wasn't) lower back pain, hamstring tightness. She showed me exercises that isolated my hamstrings (versus simply reaching for your toes - that puts stress on your lower back) and a couple of other simple stretches for my back pain and stiffness.
posted by foxhat10 at 4:13 PM on April 30, 2012

The Pro-Stretch won't help your hamstrings but it is great for stretching the muscles on the back of your lower legs, which otherwise you have to lean up against a wall to do.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 2:05 AM on May 2, 2012

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