lower back pain

Four Ways To Improve Your Hip Flexion

Decrease Lower Back Pain And Improve Your Lower Body Lifts

You’re not alone if you experience back pain when you train lower body, girl. Lower back pain is pretty much the number one reason why most people avoid heavy squats and deadlifts in the first place. And insufficient hip mobility, necessary to pull yourself to the bottom position of said exercises, is typically the culprit. 

Inadequate Hip Mobility Is Hurting You

I’m going to keep this explanation short, but it all goes back to a little idea called Joint-By-Joint Theory. One of the major conclusions of this important philosophy is that if you are lacking control in one joint, one or more of the surrounding joints are absorbing an excess of stress. And this may even lead to a waterfall of irritation and dysfunction up or down your entire body. 

Pain is a signal. In the specific case of back pain due to heavy squats, that alarm is your body’s way of letting you know that you’re trying to force the pieces - put your joints into a tough position - when they don’t quite fit. And you’re cruising for more severe injury if you keep ignoring this warning.

Work On Your Hip Flexion

So how do you put out the fire and get back to working out comfortably? Squats and deadlifts are valuable exercises in the gym for building strong legs and a nice tight booty. And they’re also important in your every day life to ensure you can bend over and tie your shoes or squat down and lift the value size bucket of cat litter.

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So, I’m giving you four exercises you can use to improve your hip flexion. That’s the action of pulling your knees to your chest with a neutral spine. You need to be able to put your hips in flexion while under load, with structural integrity, at the bottom of your squat or top of your hinge. Even in a split squat. So its’s quite imperative that you own this mobility with specific strength challenges in order to continue to make progress on your legs and lifts. 

Four Exercises To Strengthen Hip Flexors

This progression of exercises will increase in difficulty, taking your from the ground to a super tough hanging position. So be sure to spend about 3-4 weeks on each one before moving on. You can use them as a warm-up or as an accessory to your big lift. 

Band Hurdle Hold 

Place a mini band around the balls of your feet. Begin with your spine flat and your knees tucked. Exhale and reach one foot away to challenge the opposite side. Inhale and return to the starting position. 

Side Plank with hip flexion

Begin in a short side plank position from your elbow. Without any other motion, pull your knee to your chest and hold.

Banded Mountain Climbers

Set up a looped band at a fixed point. Begin with one foot in the loop from a push-up position. Maintaining neutral spine, exhale and pull the knee to your chest. Inhale and return to the starting position.

Hanging Hip Flexion 

Begin in a hollow hanging position with active shoulders. While keeping the anchor leg straight, exhale and pull the opposite knee to your chest. Inhale and return to the starting position.

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Crunches Are Bad For You. And This Is Exactly Why...

I Refuse To Do Crunches 

I used to feel bad about it. 

I would lay on the mat in the dark with everyone else and and pretend to be adjusting this or that on my clothes,  maybe stretching some tight muscle, or even feigning more significant fatigue.

It was a little dance I'd have to coordinate without disrupting my very near-by neighbors to get out of doing crunches in yoga class any time my favorite teacher was absent.

I just had this terrible fear, that whichever instructor was substituting, would see my refusal as a sign of disrespect.

I'm a coach. I know what it's like to be thrown into the fire, in front of someone else's loyal followers. You can literally feel the skepticism and ambivalence as you call the class to attention.

But see the thing is, those crunches that many instructors like to begin class with, are actually disrespecting me and my body. They're not "lighting up the core," as they are so innocently intended to.

These abs were not built by crunches....

These abs were not built by crunches....

So instead of acting out my silly pantomime, that stresses me out and turns my focus away from my body, I now just kick back by the candlelight, lay still on my mat, and come back to my breath.

Why am I so literally unmoving in my stance?

Joint-By-Joint Theory

Well, I have very few beefs with the practice of yoga. I personally practice yoga once a week religiously. And I'm actually completely convinced that some of our more typical yoga exercises and principles that I do disagree with, are more likely good intentioned but ill-advised Americanized interpretations of said ancient practice. See also: We're doing it wrong.

And one of those misinterpretations is the idea that the lower back, or lumbar spine, needs to be any more flexible and mobile than it already is.

In fact, most of the population already has wayyy too much movement going on there, and that needs to be put in check.

Joint-by-joint theory is also an old concept, not quite as early as yoga of course, as I believe it dates back to the late 1800's. But even by then, we had real evidence from Vladmir Janda to support our "crunches are bad" statement.

Joint-by-joint theory is the idea that the body is made up of joints that exist in alternating priority as we travel from the ankle, all the way up to the neck.

We have joints that are more mobile, sandwiched between joints that need to be more stabile. If we honor these differing responsibilities, we can build a strong and resilient body while protecting ourselves from excess stress and injury.

Let's look at the ankle as an example. in order to run, jump and walk with good mechanics, our ankles need to move really well. 

If our ankles do not move adequately, and we continue to go about our business without addressing this issue, we will likely end up with breakdown of the connective tissues in the knee as it attempts to pick up the slack.

This is why one knee surgery usually turns into two and three down the line -- by ignoring the dysfunction of the surrounding joints.

When we address the symptom without addressing the original cause, we don't actually fix the problem.

But what does this have to do with crunches?  Hang on. We've got one more principle to discuss.

The Four Knots

When we go further up the line, we find that the hip is even more important, as most of our movements as humans originate from the four knots, that is the two hips and two shoulders.

You can liken the kicking of a soccer ball to the crack of a whip. It all starts at the hip, with the leg following in a whipping action that terminates at the foot as it strikes the ball. This is how most movements happen. 

When our hips are not mobile, and I mean mobile, not flexible. It's important here to note that you may be passively very flexible in the hips, folding into a pigeon pose that leaves your chin on the floor in front of you with zero effort.

But, if you cannot control those ranges with strength, your hips are not actually mobile. And as you move about on your feet and get into a squat, or are even further taxed by dumbbells or barbells, that flexibility will be lost to you. 

But we as humans can be very determined when we step into the gym or onto the mat. We often disregard that the cost is higher than the benefit and risk injury for the sake of our pride (this is part of the argument against that no pain-no-gain mentality).

And when you do attempt something that is say outside your range, or past the edge (that's yoga speak for all you non-yogis), your lower back will have to move more than it should to account for the inadequacy in the hips. Can you say lower back pain?

Crunches Disrespect Your Body

So back to our original point. Why are crunches so bad?

You are probably already drawing the correct conclusions in your brain. The reasoning is two-fold.

1) Crunches violate joint-by-joint theory

Your lower back, that includes all of the vertebrae there, falls in the stability category. Instead of teaching us to protect our lumbar spines and limit movement there, to keep good space between the joints with muscular strength; crunches demand that we shorten the space between each vertebrae and add unnessecary stress to all those tiny joints. 

You would be much better off with exercises that increase the stability in your lower back, that honor the proper function of the joints like dead bugs and planks. And there are limitless variations on these two alone to keep you busy.

2) Crunches violate the theory of the four knots

It's like taking violation number one to the next level. Not only do we ask our lumbar spines to move, but to further create the motion that we are trying to execute. This creates a bad pathway in the brain. If we know we can rely on this shortcut, we'll probably just keep using it as an alternative strategy to get by in other situations beyond the crunch. That's just natural adaptation.

You need to work on your hip mobility to be able to create a better and more efficient pathway to that super low chair pose (narrow-kneed squat) you desire, as crunches will certainly have zero translation here. I'm a big fan of the high tension 90/90 stretch.

Honor The Way You Were Meant To Move

So please please please, stop doing crunches.  If you want that deep definition that separates a super strong midsection from the silly superficial abs (and who doesn't?), cut the crunches.

Focus on appreciating your body and loading up exercises that honor the way we were meant to move. As I love to say, a real good front squat with a well braced midsection is an honest 6-minute ab miracle. 

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