I’m just gonna say it: our programs have healed more back pain than a revivalist preacher.
Over the past 20 plus years, I’ve treated thousands of patients with low back pain, and consulted and given advice to even more in the past decade for our GMB Fitness clients.
And I’ve also dealt with my own recurring back pain for even longer.
I’ve seen and tried everything under the sun – Of course I did!
You’d think that we would have this all figured out by now… With 80% of people experiencing some kind of back pain in their lives, there’s literal billions spent every year.
Nope! Don’t waste your money…
This may surprise you but in regards to traction, hands on therapy, lotions, potions, braces, surgeries, and other patented and trademarked therapies, there has been nothing that has consistently proven to reduce or prevent back pain other than letting time pass and engaging in exercise.
And even more surprising is it really doesn’t have to be very specific or targeted exercise (references here and here).
🔑 Key Point: Full body exercise at the appropriate intensity and range is just as helpful as specific exercise.
It’s the consistent effort and gradual progress that makes the biggest difference.
And that’s why we’ve had so much feedback from our clients who are often surprised to find themselves with markedly reduced – or completely resolved! – back pain when practicing our programs.
These clients fit the very common presentation of low grade, recurring or chronic aches and pains that are “just kind of there” and can flare up with different activities.
If you’ve chosen to read this article, you likely know exactly what I mean!
Resources for Acute Back Pain vs Chronic Pain
If you have acute, very irritable and reactive pain, please see your health care provider.
Especially if you have:
- Pain that just keeps getting worse: read this article instead
- Pain that consistently wakes you up at night
- Weakness, numbness, pins and needles sensations
- Trauma (falls, car accidents): read this article instead
This post is aimed to those of us that have less sensitive back pain issues.
I’ll share the most common causes of back pain from my years as a physical therapist, some of the common exercises to avoid, and the most effective methods I’ve found to address the real causes of chronic back pain.
First, let’s look at what common back pain solutions don’t tend to work very well…
Why Back Stretches Don’t Fix Back Pain (and which ones make it worse)
Stretching where you force yourself into positions for the sake of “better posture” or because someone said you are “supposed” to be a certain way very rarely works to help your back pain.
Especially so when it is too uncomfortable and you don’t feel any sense of ease after a couple of minutes or a few repetitions.
This is because you are just feeding into the pain cycle.
Pain is a reaction by our nervous system when there is a perceived threat to the system. It’s a protective response. It could be from an injury but it also could be from an environment or action that is associated with a past injury.
Forcing yourself to stretch can ramp up that threat response because your nervous system “remembers” those actions/positions as being harmful.
Understanding the Pain Cycle
The science of how pain works is both fascinating and complex, but here’s a few important points to understand when it comes to chronic back pain:
- Pain is a response to a perceived threat. Whether from actual injury or perception of injury
- Pain is relative and can change/alter based on your history, environment, stresses.
- Pain doesn’t necessarily indicate damage, but even without damage pain can happen and it is real.
- Breaking out of pain requires changing the information that your nervous system is receiving.
- You’ll reduce your pain more by improving your capacity and capabilities rather than just reducing the stresses.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything at all, and not move. But it does mean you have to find ways to change that information.
Gradual exposure into and out of positions, with lots of variety that has just a bit of discomfort, but not so much that it triggers a reaction is the key. This is the new information your body needs to let go of the expectation of threat.
For example, for the majority of people they tend to feel worse in one direction of movement and better in the other. This is often referred to as positional intolerance.
Extension or Flexion Intolerance
- Extension: Backbending, standing, walking
- Flexion: Sitting, driving, bending forward
We don’t want to totally avoid these positions, but understanding what we have less capacity for can help us moderate how much time we spend in those less tolerable movements/positions.
This gives us the knowledge to choose when and how we are in those movements/positions.
This sense of choice and control can help shift us out of the pain cycle.
Never Do These! (or at least be very careful)
Stretching provides sensation and stimulus that can help us gain more awareness of our bodies.
But our nervous systems can also interpret a stretch as a danger, especially when experienced passively and at joints that are already sensitized.
It’s a fine line, because movement and range of motion exploration is very good for you, but too much of a good thing is still too much.
I’m sure you’ve seen or done traction type stretches.
Either hanging from your hands or upside down. Off a pullup bar, inversion tables, or hanging from boots, this positioning unloads your spine and again can feel good.
Until it doesn’t.
The stretch when you are fully relaxed tends to be more on the spinal ligaments. If you don’t have back pain and are used to this type of stimulus it’s generally okay to do. But with current or recurring issues, it can cause a reactive muscle spasm as your body attempts to protect you from a threat.
Add on aggressive rotations and that can really ramp up the danger signals.
I don’t want to scare anyone off from doing any movement or exercise, but I’ve seen and heard of patients coming off of traction and having a terrible spasming reaction. I’ve also experienced it to a lesser degree myself when trying some different traction techniques for my lower back.
Active and Controlled vs Passive Stretching
In my experience, active controlled movement and stretching is much more beneficial than passive, and much less likely to elicit this kind of response.
This also goes for assisted “forced” stretching, where someone pushes on you in an attempt to help you move further into a position. There is the fact that the person can’t really know if they are pushing you too far, and also that this lack of full control over the movement can be more easily sensed as a threat by your nervous system.
There can be a time and a place for everything, but if you are currently having back pain issues, or have a history of sensitive flare ups, it’s best to avoid prolonged passive hanging and twisting stretches.
That’s something you can definitely build up to over time if you’d like.
But you’ll have to decide if the cost/benefit ratio for that is worth it to you.
The Real Causes of (most) Back Pain
It’s reasonable to think of pain being an indicator of trauma or damage, and in some cases it is.
At least right away, in the first few weeks after an incident. Car accidents, falls, etc. But in general, about 70% of people this pain subsides dramatically within two to three months.
In about 30% of people there is ongoing or recurring (flare ups) of pain beyond the point where the tissues have healed.
The theory is that the nervous system is more sensitized to threats, it’s working to protect you and pain is one of the ways it’s trying to do that. Flying up the bat signal.
Different situations can trigger muscle tension, stiffness, and pain based on your past experiences.
It’s not so much that you have to avoid movements and postures but instead think of them as areas where you have to build up your capacity.
Prolonged standing, sitting, lifting, carrying aren’t “bad” but they can be troublesome when your tolerance is low and then it becomes a recurring cycle of aggravation, recovery, aggravation.
Because your nervous system isn’t convinced that anything has changed. And if you are just doing (or not doing the same things) over and over, then truly there has been no change.
Your nervous system is totally correct and is just doing it’s job.
Lack of control and strength at extremities can also produce spinal “guarding” strategies. If you don’t feel stable and strong through your arms and legs you tend to automatically tense and brace inappropriately in your back. This leads to tension and stiffness that is “just there all the time”.
You stretch and move, and at best there is temporary relief and at worst it makes you feel even more tight and sore.
We need to work on not just strength and/or mobility but also the coordination and control of your body can mitigate stresses and strain and reduce the threat response. This can be the missing link in a lot of exercise programs.
It’s not the only thing you should do though. Strength and mobility are important as well!
Don’t fall into the reductionist trap of DO THIS ONE THING.
Mobility Exercises for Back Pain (and why we chose these for our programs)
Whole body movement – mobility – is one of the keys to the back pain problem.
Too often we think that there are very specialized exercises we absolutely need to “fix” our back pain.
But the first thing that’s needed is to “get the big rocks in” before you fill in with pebbles and sand.
✅ General body movement.
✅ Task based actions.
✅ Show your nervous system you can move without threat.
Then you fill in with the sand of more specific movements where you can control the forces and stress to the different motions of your back.
Oftentimes, focusing in too directly on the painful area is too stressful and it’s difficult to adjust the appropriate amount of movement/load/force because it all simply hurts too much.
This leads to frustration and then giving up.
Start Broad, then Zoom In
Get some global big movement in first.
It’s easier to modify and find what you can do with much less pain. Get your wins in there and then zooming in as needed will be less stressful.
- The novel stimulus of locomotion can change the guarding behavior.
- Better coordination and motor control can reduce the energy needed to do a movement.
- Better force/load/stress distribution when learning how to use your whole body vs thinking of it as parts and pieces.
Recommended Back Pain Mobility Exercises
🪨 Basic locomotions and whole body exercises are the big rocks.
Practicing and improving how you do with these will take you most of the way in not just decreasing your back pain but also with preparing your body for all the things you want to do.
Attribute focused locomotions and specific area preparation and movements are the pebbles and sand that you may need to eke out the most from your training time to reduce the last bit of nagging symptoms, and that will help your physical performance in your favorite sport/hobby.
These crawling movements have helped thousands of our clients with chronic or recurring back pain.
Bear & Monkey Locomotion Exercises
These quadrupedal exercises provide a lot of great and unique stimulus to your body. You’ll notice with your hands on the ground either moving together or alternating, there’s a distinct stimulation of your core and your spine.
This novel full body motion provides a different sensory and movement experience that helps our nervous system to break out of the pain cycle. You have to give your body something new for it to change!
Twisting Bear & Spiderman Movement
As you get more familiar and comfortable with the basic locomotions, you’ll practice other variations which emphasize different actions.
The twisting bear incorporates more spinal rotations and using your arms and legs to support your whole body stability while you do them.
The spiderman locomotion adds in more upper body strengthening to further improve your ability to add load in different spinal positions like sidebending and rotation.
Walking Frogger Exercise
The Walking Frogger works on hip strength to support your low back as it moves through different positions, such as the rounded pelvic tilt. This gives you more tolerance and adaptability for all kinds of activities.
Monkey 360 to Add Rotational Movement
The rotations and hand positioning in the Monkey 360 stimulate the core and spine with different forces as you move through a circle. Again for more tolerance and resilience in all directions.
How our Clients Consistently Beat Back Pain (without doing ANY specific back pain exercises)
As you can see, none of these exercises I’m recommending attempt to stretch or isolate the back.
They coordinate the whole body together in movement – the way a healthy body moves naturally in the real world – so you can systematically build your body’s ability to function correctly in daily activities.
And it’s worked for a TON of our clients:
You can read loads more like these here 👉 Elements Reviews
And again, this isn’t voodoo or some esoteric secret.
It’s just what naturally happens when you create a safe and secure foundation of strength, mobility, and motor control so your muscles and joints can work together appropriately for what you want to do.
When you loosen up the tight areas and strengthen the weak ones in the right way, the pain reaction can resolve.
Assess Yourself for Mobility Exercise
So the real question comes down to “will this help me?”
And since back pain is a highly individual condition, we recommend testing yourself with this quick assessment.
If you can to that without pain, you’re likely fine to use these exercises.
Over time, you should notice easier movement and less feeling tightness or aches and pains. Many of of our clients tell us that they see results in a little as 2-3 weeks.
A Training Plan to Manage Chronic Back Pain
You can get started by just trying the movements explained in this article, but if you want to make the most effective progress, it helps to have a clear, step-by-step outline on exactly how to progress and develop your mobility.
We created Elements to provide that foundation in an easy-to-follow way:
Address the Most Common Causes of Chronic Back Pain
With Elements, you’ll build the strength, flexibility, and motor control to short circuit the pain cycle and free up your back to move pain-free.