The Curse of the Bendy Lower Back

I like to say that with great flexibility comes great responsibility. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of the bendy lower back.

I know that those of you reading this who do not have naturally flexible lower backs are grumbling that you would be happy to have this problem, but time and again I have seen how the bendy lower back poses difficulties for aspiring flexperts.

First, a little anatomy. The lumbar spine (the part of your back between your sacrum and the lowest attachment of the rib cage) naturally bends backwards on almost all people. Even on non-flexi people this area tends to be pretty darned mobile. The muscles of the lower back are small—it is actually designed to be supported and controlled by the abdominal muscles, the psoas, and the pelvic floor. On either side of the lumbar area are traditionally tight areas: the upper back and the hips.

People with naturally bendy lower backs often have difficulty controlling their spinal flexion. Some have hyperlordosis, a condition where the lumbar spine’s resting position has an exaggerated curve. These folks require extremely strong, finely attuned abdominal and psoas muscles to support their full range of motion. Without this additional strength a variety of postural issues can develop including:

  •      Lower back pain
  •      Difficulty bending forward or sideways
  •      Unpleasantly tight hip flexors
  •      Weak pelvic floor
  •      Weak and tight psoas
  •      Exaggerated forward bending of the upper back creating tightness (kyphosis)
  •      Tight, inwardly rotated shoulders
  •      Weak, under-utilized glutes and hamstrings

The consequences for training are unpleasant. Because the surrounding joints are tight, the lower back does all the work of creating the desired shapes. The spine is able to smoosh into poses without enough support and putting tremendous pressure on the delicate structures of the lower back. Training without addressing the imbalances will only exacerbate them.

This was me for so many years! It was only have developing chronic lower back pain and unbearably tight hips that I started to change the way I trained.

Brynn and Adrien work on using their full spinal flexibility in advanced class.

Brynn and Adrien work on using their full spinal flexibility in advanced class.

The only way out of this situation is to tame your lower back. Learn how to strengthen your abdominal and psoas muscles… a LOT! You will have to do twice as much abdominal conditioning as your friends who have less flexible backs. You will also have to strengthen your abs in your backbends. It isn’t enough to do 8 million crunches. Learn how to be strong in the positions that you want to hold for your contortion training.

Here are a few tips that help me every day to tame the lower back:

  1. Learn the “Waterfall” approach to the standing backbend so that your abs are engaged from the very beginning of the movement.*
  2. Find your psoas and love it up. Strengthen that muscle every day.
  3. Do your lunges in a doorway with your spine pressed into the frame. Make sure that your lower back does not come away from the frame as you stretch your hips. If this feels really hard, it means that you need it.
  4. Whenever strengthening your abs with leg raises make sure that the pubic bone stays above the hip bones in a deep tuck.
  5. Strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, and upper back to start to bring your pelvis and spine back into alignment
  6. Don’t push into your lower back when it hurts! It hurts for a reason, it needs more support from your muscles. Do your conditioning first, then go back to your contortion training.

There is hope for those suffering from the curse of the bendy lower back. With proper training, strengthening, and controlled stretching you can harness the power of your natural bendiness and use it to make bendy beauty without hurting yourself.

Happy Bendings!

*Stay tuned for a blog post on the Waterfall backbend!