A few years ago I was headed out the door to an early morning networking meeting with my six month old daughter in tow. She was buckled in her car seat, sitting on the floor by the door. I had my coat on, favorite 2 inch chunky heels on my feet, diaper bag slung over my left shoulder.
I bent over, reached to my right to grab the handle of the car seat, hoisted it off the floor and the back spasm that had been waiting just around the corner spasmed with a vengeance.
I never made it upright.
Obviously there’s no good time to have a back spasm, but it’s really bad timing when you have an infant and are home alone.
What I know now is that back spasm had been months, no, make that years, in the making even if, in the moment, it seemed to "come out of nowhere".
After all, I only bent over to lift the car seat like I’d done a bazillion times before. Yes, but. The straw didn’t break the camel’s back overnight.
In a nutshell, here’s what I did to prepare my back for the mother of all spasms:
I spent years shortening my psoas muscles (see picture on the right) and weakening the muscles of my hips.
This was my training regimen:
1. I sat. A lot. For years and years and yearsssssss. Basically, I sat whenever I absolutely didn't have to be standing - at my computer, at my treatment table, in the car, etc.
Every day, for hours and hours, I trained my joints to accommodate a seated position (90 degrees, more or less, of knee and hip joint flexion).
Every day, for hours and hours, my muscles learned exactly what lengths they needed to be so they could maintain those positions with minimum energy expenditure.
My body wasn't going to waste energy maintaining unused muscle length, so it shortened my muscles to the lengths that were being used (hint: so does your body). This set me up for shortened psoas muscles and tight hip flexors.
Not sure where your psoas muscles are? See the image above for a view of them. They run behind your kidneys (those bean shaped images in the drawing), down the left and right sides of your lumbar spine.
2. I sat with a tucked pelvis, which trained my lumbar spine to be in a rounded (flexed) position most of the time and also required my sacrum (the triangle bone towards the bottom of my spine) to support most of my weight.
Sitting with a tucked pelvis, creates even more psoas muscle shortening. It also can create sacroiliac joint instability.
3. I wore positive heels. I’m not a fasionista by any stretch of the imagination (those who know me in real life are laughing loudly right about now).
Wearing shoes with a bit of a heel was my attempt to be a little less of a fashion zero.
They usually weren’t ankle breakers (those were only for special occasions) but every day my feet were in shoes that raised my heels higher than the balls of my feet and every day my joints had to adjust/contort in response so I didn't face plant (see image far right).
Every day my muscles were being trained to adapt to the necessary lengths needed to keep my joints in those positions.
Hello, shortened calf muscles and hamstrings! Hello, shortened psoas muscles! Hello, weak glutes! Hello, lumbar spine compression!
4. My pelvis was shifted wayyyy over the front of my feet on the rare occasion when I stood for any length of time.
In that position my glutes were mostly on vacation instead of actively participating in keeping me upright and stabilizing my pelvis.
Hello, Flat Ass Syndrome!
It's also a fantastic position for distorting the curves of the spine.
Hello, lumbar spine compression!
So how do I keep my back healthy and spasm free? It's a combination of doing and not doing.
Here's part of my current training regime:
1. I move much, much more than I used to.
I've changed my mindset and instead of looking for ways to move less (parking spot closest to the door for example), I'm on a mission to find ways to move more. I walk daily. Sometimes they're short walks, sometimes they're long walks. Ideally I break up my day with short walks.
2. I sit way, way less than I used to.
I still sit but when I sit at home, I sit on the floor so I'm more likely to have a greater variety of joint positions.
It's much harder to park in one position on the floor for hours and hours, unlike the pelvic tucking, black hole of the couch.
3. I sit well.
When I sit, I also make sure I'm sitting on the bottom of my pelvis rather than slouched back onto my sacrum.
4. I wear flat shoes.
Yes, my shoes have a totally flat sole. And no, I won't win any fashion awards. I'm ok with that.
It's harder than you might think to find shoes that are truly flat and foot friendly. You can check out a variety of options here on my Minimalist Shoes Pinterest board.
5. I stand vs. sit as often as possible.
Not only am I sitting much less than I used to, but when I stand I make sure to stack my pelvis back over my ankles so I keep the muscles on the backs of my legs active and engaged.
This position also creates more length in my low back, compared to when I let my pelvis drift forward and my torso drift back.
6. I relax my psoas muscles daily.
The psoas muscles are a pair of muscles that run down either side of the lumbar spine.
One of their main jobs is to stabilize the spine but they're often overworked for a variety of reasons, including poor movement habits.
Lots of time spent sitting, as well as stress, take a toll on the psoas muscles.
I could probably spend the rest of my life apologizing to my psoas muscles and all I've put them through. Spending time doing the psoas releases is one of the ways I apologize.
I also love the Frankie Says Relax the Psoas Alignment Snack taught by my alignment guru Katy Bowman.
The pelvic list is a great exercise for strengthening those muscles on the sides of the pelvis.
I stand on a block or book with one foot, keeping my pelvis stacked over my heel. Then I lift my opposite foot off the floor as I push down through my standing hip and standing foot. Both knees stay straight.
These muscles help to keep my pelvis stable when I move. When they're strong and doing their job, my back muscles don't have to pick up the slack and work overtime.
If your back is your weak link, or you'd like to keep it healthy and pain-free, start by working on just one part of my training regimen. Each day, do just one thing.
Here's to all of us enjoying a life free of back pain and spasms!