If you are suffering from a tight lower back, stretching your leg muscles may be one way to find relief. The leg muscles, in particular hamstrings and quadriceps, are connected to the pelvis. When one or both of them are tight, they will pull on the pelvis and alter the way the spine is balanced on top of the pelvis. This misalignment may cause muscle tightness and pain. This blog discusses the importance of stretching leg muscles to relieve low back pain. I will demonstrate the easiest positions to do this and also explain how to stretch efficiently. Depending on the position and the method, your stretching efforts will be effective or have no impact at all.
In this blog I focus on the hamstrings, inner thigh muscles, and quadriceps. The psoas muscle is another major influence on the health of the spine but has already been discussed in this blog. The gluts will be discussed in a future blog.
The hamstrings are attached at the top of the back leg to the sitting bones. When they are tight, they can pull the pelvis down and flatten the lower back. A flat lumbar curve will alter the other spinal curves so that the spine loses its suppleness and strength. We need the two sets of opposing curves in our spine for adequate weight distribution and efficient movement. Furthermore, when we bend forward with tight hamstrings, the pelvis cannot tilt sufficiently “from the hips”, but the movement will happen by rounding the lower back too much, thus risking lower back strain. Sometimes, hamstrings hardly respond to stretching. In this case it is important to look at structural imbalances: the hamstrings may be tight because other muscle groups are not able to function properly. Changing alignment or posture is best done with a yoga therapist or other qualified body worker.
The inner thigh muscles consist of several muscle groups working together to adduct the legs (bringing them towards the midline). When they are tight, they can exert a downward pull on the pelvic bone, thereby tilting the pelvis forward and increasing the arch in the lower back. This leads to a tight and painful lower back as the muscles in the lower back are chronically contracted.
Quadriceps is the name for 4 muscle groups in the front of our upper legs. They run from the kneecap to the top of the femur (upper leg) bone. One of them, the rectus femoris, attaches to the hipbone. If the rectus femoris is tight it can pull the hipbone down and cause an arched, often tight and painful, lower back.
We can only stretch muscles when the mind is relaxed. When our mind is busy planning, remembering, going over the same event (yet again), it is giving signals to the body that it is in an active and potentially dangerous situation (the fight or flight situation of a stressed mind). When, on the contrary, the attention is focused on the sensations in the body and the breathing, the breathing will slow down and convey to the body that it is safe to relax. The relaxation response triggered by calm breathing is the opposite to the fight and flight mode, and it enables healing by allowing muscles to relax, blood pressure to drop, and nerves to quieten down.
You can try relaxing by focusing on the breath right now: soften your face, jaw and throat, and simply observe your breath. Allow the inhalation to come naturally, lightly. Follow the exhalation to the very end. Maybe pause for a second or two at the end of the exhalation if it feels natural. The trick is not to force anything. It is quite paradoxical that in order to achieve relaxation, you have to let go of wanting it too much. Instead, just allow it to happen…
The stretches described below are suitable for most causes of low back pain. One of the exceptions is when you are still in pain of a herniated disc: the yoga for this condition is very specific and does not follow the rules of mere lower back tightness. Also people with back conditions such as spondylolisthesis or arthritis of the spine should not try yoga without expert and individualised help. If you are interested in yoga therapy for your back, do contact me to set up a phone conversation.
Stretch the whole back of your leg, hamstrings as well as calf muscles, by lying on your back and using a belt.
-Bend the right leg and place the right foot on the floor. Bending the right leg in this way will help to keep the lower back relaxed.
-Use a yoga strap, old tie or bathrobe belt to hook around the left foot.
-Exhale and straighten the left leg towards the ceiling. Keep the left foot more or less above the hip and straighten the leg a little (or completely, depending on the length of the muscles) with each outbreath. If the hamstrings are very tight, there is no need to straighten the leg completely.
-Inhale and relax the leg again.
-When it starts to feel easier, hold the leg straight for a while.
-It is important not to force a stretch: work with the breath and only stretch as far as comfortable. A stretchy feeling is good, pain is not.
Inner thigh stretch
With the belt in the same position, bring the left leg to the left without tilting the hips to the side. It may be tempting to roll over to the side so the leg seems to stretch further. However, this would have no effect on the inner thigh but merely twist the spine. It does not matter how far the leg goes. Hold it to the side for a few breaths while keeping the whole back even and relaxed on the mat. Work up to 60 to 90 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
Standing quad stretch
The quads are best stretched while lying down on your abdomen: tuck your tailbone under strongly and hold the left foot with the left hand or with a belt. Hold for up to 90 seconds, and repeat with the right leg.
This prone position can sometimes hurt the lower back, especially when the quads are very tight and the lower back too painful. If this is the case, it is better to stretch the quads in a standing position.
Hold on to something while you hold one foot behind the back. Also in this standing position it is very important to tuck the tailbone, thereby lengthening the lower back. This may increase the stretch but that is fine, just allow the knee go forward. With time, the quads will lengthen and the knee may point down more. Also, don’t wring your foot to one side but keep the two sides of the ankle level by holding the foot nearer the ankle.
Work up to 60 to 90 seconds.
I hope this is helpful,