Tight Lower Back? Instead of Stretches Try Hamstring Exercises

This reexamination of posture shows how hamstring muscles can be a powerful aid in improving lower back flexibility

Tight lower back muscles are incredibly common, and often very difficult to address. Stretching the lower back may bring temporary relief but the muscles of the lower back are small, cranky, and delicate. Sometimes stretching can pull on the muscles or the spinal structure itself and create more problems than it solves. Fortunately, there are other muscles that affect the spine, and working with them may yield better results.

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The most effective approach to addressing a tight lower back is to look for the underlying causes. The lower back muscles’ big job is to hold the upper body upright. They are like anti-gravity muscles, working to keep the spine supported and vertical, balancing the weight of the head, shoulders, and arms overhead. When we walk, the lower back muscles participate by working to shift our pelvis with each step.

That means that the root cause of tight lower back muscles is often postural.

Lower Back Muscles and Posture

I want to start by addressing a common misconception about posture. With the constant admonishment to “sit up straight” we have been taught that posture is a static position that we must find and maintain.

Posture is often associated with a straight spine, retracted shoulder blades, and a head you could balance books on. It feels like a punitive position to be held while in formal company, and relaxed into guilty comfort as soon as no one is looking.

This old-school Miss Manners interpretation of good posture is based on social stricture, not anatomy. Our bodies are not meant to be held rigidly. Posture is dynamic. Posture is how we move, how we breathe, and it should be relaxed and natural for our bodies.

That isn’t to say that most of us couldn’t improve our natural posture. We sit too much, wear bad shoes, get extremely stressed out, don’t move enough, and engage in all sorts of other modern absurdities that mess up our bodies’ homeostasis… but the old postural fixes are not helping (for more musings on the downfall of conventional postural cues check out this blog post).

According to the new schools of physical therapy like the Postural Restoration Institute, changing your posture requires finding the muscular engagement and sensory inputs that your body needs to reorganize itself in an easeful, sustainable way.

And most of us need more hamstrings.

Why Hamstring Muscles Can Relieve Your Tight Lower Back

Hamstrings are amazing. They are both postural muscles and mover muscles, anchoring our pelvis to the ground in one graceful line of pull from our sit bones to our heels (the hamstrings themselves don’t go to the heels but they are part of a myofascial chain that leads to the Achilles tendon, on into the sole of the foot). Standing, walking, and running are all facilitated by the hamstrings.

And yet, the modern world is cruel to the poor hamstrings. We sit for long periods of time, sometimes in hard chairs or in chairs where are legs hang off the edge, pressing the edge of the seat into the backs of our thighs. This squashes the hamstrings and glutes, reducing their blood flow and neurological activity. Then when we finally stand up again and we need them, they struggle to perform.

The hamstrings will often react one of two ways: by becoming tight as bridge cables or sleepy as a sloth.

The Consequences of Tight Hamstrings on the Lower Back

Tight hamstrings overdo their job. Instead of comfortably and dynamically anchoring the pelvis to the floor they maniacally clamp down, pulling the pelvis into a posterior pelvic tilt. A posterior tilt of the pelvis pulls on the lower back muscles so that they are always at tension. Usually people with this default setting have very weak, immobile lower backs that are prone to back spasms. Obviously hamstring flexibility will be challenging, but often back bending is as well.

anterior vs posterior pelvic tilt

Posterior pelvic tilt can result from tight hamstrings. Anterior pelvic tilt can come from sleepy hamstrings

The Consequences of Sleepy Hamstrings on the Lower Back

Sleepy hamstrings that have difficulty engaging and acting as anchors fail to do their job of keeping the pelvis neutral. The sit bones begin to float upwards, resulting in an anterior pelvic tilt. This puts strain on the lower back in two ways. Firstly, without the hamstrings working their own anti-gravity magic the lower back muscles have to work overtime to keep the spine and upper body vertical. Secondly, that forward tilt of the pelvis shortens and crunches the lower back resulting in a sway back posture. Folks with this default often have an easier time back bending but really struggle with any kind of forward bending in the lower back. They may be able to fake it if the hamstrings are very loose, but that lumbar spine never relaxes.

To Loosen Up Your Lower Back Try Hamstring Exercises

If your lower back feels chronically tight and angry and the stretches you’ve been doing aren’t helping, maybe it’s time to take a look at your hamstrings.

Whether your hamstrings fall into the tight or the sleepy category I find that most clients I work with need some combination of lengthening and strengthening, as well as more control and awareness.

Part of what is tricky about trying to stretch and strengthen the hamstrings is getting them to work without bringing in their good friend: the lower back. If your hamstrings are sleepy they will be really good and getting the back to do strengthening work for them. If your hamstrings are tight and filled with rage they will pull on your lower back instead of stretching.

It is essential to approach this training thoughtfully and slowly to make sure that you are changing old patterns, not reinforcing them. The goal is give your muscles what they need so that they can do their job and the entire meat suit can work together. Pain-free, dynamic posture and mobility enter the chat.

Did you read this and think “ok great but now what do I actually do with my hamstrings to make this better?” then perhaps you will be interested in a new resource I have created to celebrate all things hamstring. This is a collection of 15 hamstring-focused workouts including injury recovery, foundational mobility, hamstring wake-up calls, and advanced flexibility for kicks and splits.

This new course is available on our Thinkific page here.

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