Injury Prevention Blog #5: Lower Back

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Get Back on the Mat


I have a slipped disk. The doctor said I have lumbago. I’ve got sciatica. My back went out.


Chances are you or someone you know has uttered these common phrases before. Low back pain is one of the most common complaints of American adults over the age of eighteen. It is one of the most frequent reasons for doctor’s visits and is one of the leading causes for missed work in the U.S. In 2010, the estimated direct cost for treatment of low back pain was fifty billion dollars. Untreated low back pain can lead to chronic conditions, decreased income and a reliance on pain medication.


The lumbar spine is made up of five back bones, or vertebrae, numbered L1 through L5. In between those vertebrae are discs made out of cartilage with a center called a nucleus pulposus.


These discs effectively act as shock absorbers for our spines. As early as our mid-twenties, our discs start to lose some of their water content, making them less elastic and more prone to injury. The orientation of the fibers that make up the disc make it particularly susceptible to a tear, which can allow the gel-like nucleus to push out past the border and press against the nerves that travel down our legs and give us both sensation and muscle control.



If the pressure is severe enough, it can result in numbness and tingling, and even loss of strength of the muscles of the lower extremity.


Combat athletes, particularly jiu-jitsu players, ask a lot of their spines. The amount of forces that arise from the simultaneous twisting and bending of the lower back can lead to damage without the right combination of strength and flexibility of the muscles surrounding and adjacent to the spine. What follows are some essential exercises to increase lower extremity flexibility as well as the strength of your abdominal and paraspinal (near and attached to the spine) muscles to help keep you pain-free and in the gym. As always, consult your physician if you have a history of or are currently experiencing low back pain.

Doorway Hamstring Stretch
Tight hamstrings can pull the pelvis backwards, flattening the natural curve of the low back and putting undue stress on the lumbar spine. Counteract this with an effective stretch that prevents cheating even if you have significant tightness. Place one leg on a door jamb and place the other flat on the floor. Inch your hips as close to the doorway as you can while keeping both legs straight. Once you’ve reached your maximum stretch, hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 5 times on each side.


Side Planks

One of the best exercises to activate all the muscles of your “core”, the deep abdominals and paraspinals and the larger square like muscles attached to your hips and spine, the quadratus lumborum. Lay on your side, propped on your elbow. Press through your forearm and lift your hips from the ground, keeping your body in as straight a line as possible. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat for 15 repetitions on each side.


Stir the Pot

This one is a beast, getting maximum activation of all the muscles that support your spine. Assume a plank position on a physioball. Rotate the ball underneath you without allowing your body to move. Perform for 10 seconds in a clock wise direction, then 10 seconds in a counterclockwise direction. Repeat 10 times.



Written By John Vercher

John is a writer and physical therapist with over ten years of sports medicine and orthopedics experience.  He has competed as an amateur in kickboxing and MMA and continues to compete in jiu-jitsu tournaments year round.


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