Last Saturday I went to teach yoga at one of the Red Cheetah Yoga locations, CrossFit Fortress, and shouldn’t have been surprised when the only people who showed up were me and the desk girl.
Why should I have foreseen this?
Because this past weekend was the CrossFit Games out in Carson, California, the CrossFitter’s Olympic Games.
Undeterred by the lack of attendance, I do what any entrepreneurial Cheetah does: I got to work with Gabby, the fabulous front desk personality there, and helped her out with the lower back pain she was experiencing from deadlifting heavy the week before.
This is exactly what I created my company for: to help mobilize and heal hard working athletes of all kinds: from Games-level competitors to the weekend-warrior, fitness enthusiasts.
I offered to stretch her out manually instead of give her a yoga class. I knew this would give me a better idea of what she was experiencing in her body and where her strengths and weaknesses were in terms of her flexibility and range of motion.
This is what I learned: she LOVES stretching her hamstrings, and pretty much ignores everything else.
I found this ironic because I literally just saw a blog post go viral in the last couple days whose title was pleading for athletes to stop stretching their hamstrings.
Where I wouldn’t necessarily agree with quitting stretching your hamstrings cold-turkey (I’m not actually saying that post says that by the way, because I didn’t read it so I don’t know it’s context; I recognize it was a catchy title to get people to read it), I have encountered over and over again athletes thinking that the route to overcoming low back pain is to stretch the hell out of your hamstrings.
This actually CAN work. But there is a lot more at work here, and what you do to one side, you must do to the other. Your hamstrings attach at your hips, but so do A LOT of other muscles, too. So it’s important to understand that if you are going to stretch one side of your body, you have to stretch the other, too. This is equivalent to only squatting and never deadlifting. We would never do that to ourselves with a barbell, so why would we on our yoga mat?
Gabby’s low back pain and tightness reinforced the need to give two other muscles groups love: your quadriceps and your external hip rotators, also known as your piriformis.
Firstly, let’s tackle the seated forward fold. It’s really important to do a hamstring stretch properly in order to really heal your back and hips. This was something I noticed Gabby needed improvement on, because the reality was that she wasn’t actually doing anything for her low back and hammies the way she was doing it.
In the first photo, Gabby demonstrates how she has been doing a forward fold, because it is how she and many of us have been taught to do it:
Her back is rounded. She was probably taught to reach her forehead to her shins or knees, or maybe cued to reach the crown of her head to her feet. Those were the things I was taught as a kid, too.
Please note: this isn’t necessarily “wrong”. There is just a more effective way of doing it, especially if the goal is to help alleviate pain. One of my professors in college would actually vouch for a slouched spine while sitting: it actually can give your spinal erectors a little break. However, spending too much time in either position (too tall all the time or too rounded all the time) can be too much on your back and all the interlocking muscles that connect there. Awareness is always your best friend.
So here is how we fixed her seated forward fold:
It doesn’t actually matter how far you can fold over.
What makes all the difference is how straight you can keep your back. Gabby actually complained of increased pain in her low back in this new version of this pose. Feeling more sensation means you are stretching the muscles that need to be stretched. Stretching can be painful sometimes, especially if you are an active athlete who lifts a lot.
Unless you have a doctor’s order to not do this stretch in this way for any medical reason, this is how you should do it: focus on bending from your hips, and get your belly to connect with the top of your thighs. It’s a major difference in sensation in your posterior chain, and is hitting your muscles precisely how you want them to be hit. By expertly folding from your hips you are specifically targeting your HIP JOINT, whereas rounding your entire back gets your vertebrae in the game: this makes it too easy to execute and completely ineffective. Because your goal is to attain great range of motion and to get back to working hard in the box again, it is in your best interest to do seated forward folds with a nice, flat spine. You don’t have time to be held back by silly injuries when your body is designed to heal itself, all you have to do is apply the right techniques.
Key points in a seated forward fold:
- Dorsi-flexed toes (flex your toes toward your shins)
- Straight knees (engage your quads)
- Flat back
- As you fold forward, keep your back flat, focal point is the space between your big toes
- Grab the sides of your legs, and use your arms to pull forward. The goal is NOT to touch for your feet (although if you can, do!)
Following these 5 points will actually gain you more hamstring flexibility and low back flexibility, especially if it is done every day. Which it should be. As a general rule, flexibility and strength should increase together throughout training cycles. If you follow these simple rules, you are going to find that you don’t have to fold so far down in order to start feeling the work. In fact, the angle that your hip needs to be in to facilitate the best effect is probably so shallow to the point you might be embarrassed by your lack of flexibility. Remember that this stretch is about what you feel in your posterior chain, and not about what it might look like to others watching you.
Sure, rounding your upper back like a shrimp might make you look like a bendy badass, but it actually is doing nothing to help you. Straighten up and think of getting your belly to touch the top of your thighs.
And here are the two missing components when it comes to low back pain and hip inflexibility:
Quadriceps and Hip Rotators
Long story short: if your quads are tight, it moves your pelvis out of place. If your pelvis is out of place, your low back will hurt. If your hip rotators are tight, your thigh bones have a hard time moving through their natural full range of motion, especially when you squat to depth, which has an impact on the ranges of motion your hip can perform in both kinds of hip flexion (knee up and squatting, aka closed and open contractions). The network of muscles crisscrossing around all of your joints is very complex, so hitting all of them is essential.
Gabby was a perfect example of an athlete who could touch her toes but couldn’t get her heels to touch her butt when laying prone on the floor. This creates an imbalance that causes all kinds of pain that can go all the way to your knees and up into your low back.
Pigeon + quad stretch (I have nick-named this pose “galaxy pigeon”) is the perfect stretch to hit both muscle groups at the same time.
Point #3 is something I have been wanting to address for some time with this pose, because most yoga teachers give very weird instruction for the front leg in this pose. If new to this pose, follow these steps from beginning to end.
- Bring your right knee to your right wrist, and move your right foot to your left wrist. How close your foot gets to your opposite wrist does not matter, what matters is that you feel this stretch in your right glute/outside of your hip (some might feel it more in the hamstring)
2. Please note: if there is any knee pain in your right (front) knee, this is a compromised position for your knee. You should probably lay on your back and do figure 4 stretch, and stretch your quads separately.
3. Your front foot: so many yoga teachers say that your front foot must be flexed to “protect your knee” in this pose. This isn’t true. What is occurring when you flex your foot is you are activating your tibialis anterior muscle, or the muscle of your shin located right next to the bony part of your shin (the part that hurts really bad when you hit it against something hard). I bounced this question off my friend and colleague, Kyle Krupa, who is part owner of Athletix Rehab here in Miami. He services many top-level athletes with injuries of all kinds, and him and I both call the University of Miami alma mater. His analysis of a flexed foot in pigeon is as follows: since the tibialis anterior doesn’t cross the knee it actually doesn’t affect your knee, since it’s work is to dorsiflex your ankle. More on this after I complete explaining the full expression of this stretch. With this in mind, keep your front foot relaxed instead of flexed in any direction.
4. To hit the left hip flexor, stay upright (refer to above photo). Fold over your front leg to shift the work from your left hip flexor to your right hip rotator/gluteal.
5. To add in the quad, lift your chest and reach back with your right hand (if your right leg is in front, otherwise it is your left if your left leg is in front).
6. Bend your left knee, and grab your foot on the pinky-toe side with your right hand.
7. You can remain here, or you can add a bend to your right elbow, drawing your foot to your hip.
8. Another option to go deeper is to drop down on your left elbow. This will make the stretch really deep, so if it is too much rise back up onto your left hand. If you still need a deeper stretch, bend your right elbow, too.
9. When you feel you have completed the stretch work on this side, stretch out your hamstrings in either downdog (not pictured) or go back to a seated forward fold, then repeat all of these steps in sequential order for the left side.
More on #3: For years I have heard yoga teachers say that it is so important to flex your front foot in half pigeon (there is a “full” pigeon pose, which I will cover in a separate post later) because it is important to protect your knee. While practicing, I decided to self-test this. What brings people back to yoga again and again is the ability it has to tune us in to our bodies and our bodies’ true needs, wants, and desires. One thing that came up for me while practicing half pigeon was the desire to relax my front foot. Intuitively, I knew it would feel great, and not put my knee in any danger whatsoever. Of course, I was right, and what I loved the most about it was that it seemed to totally relax my hip musculature even more than when I would keep it flexed. In other words, I went deeper into the stretch and facilitated healing on a deeper level. Since then, I have consciously chosen to quit flexing my front foot, and Krupa’s analysis truly confirmed that for me. In fact, I teach it that way now to my students.
This is a post on the lower back and not the knee, so I will go back to that now. I mention this detail because relaxing your foot is going to give you more access to healing your hip rotator than when you flex it, which so many yoga teachers seem to think is right, and just isn’t. In the long run relaxing your front foot is going to help your low back pain, too.
Making sure you stretch all of the muscles around the large joint of your hip is crucial. Truly great athletes work on everything: all the ten components of fitness (strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, agility, coordination, speed, power, accuracy, and balance) and on top of that they also don’t leave out conditioning of any individual muscles. In some way shape or form, every muscle and organ in your body must experience these ten components in some way. If one muscle is not experiencing all 10 of these then the system is incomplete and you are setting yourself up for lasting and recurring injury. This is why the best athletes spend as much time mobilizing as they do training.
So, in the case of athletes similar to Gabby, it’s great to have enthusiasm around stretching, but make sure that stretching repertoire is complete in it’s execution. More muscles attach to your hip than just your hamstrings (and it actually extends beyond just this post, too). Where your hamstrings could be a cause to your low back pain if they are tight, know that they are not the only possible cause. In this post we have not only covered the quadriceps and the hip rotators, but we also mentioned the hip flexors, too, which are the only muscle in your body to go from posterior to anterior in your body. There are many, many things you can do for them and galaxy pigeon is definitely one you can use for that, too.
There are also many more stretches and muscle groups to hit when healing your low back, so do not limit yourself to only these. Explore and educate yourself!
Remember that all training of all kinds relies on consistency for success, and flexibility is the only component of fitness that affects all of the other nine.
So, get on your yoga mats and get to stretching! Red Cheetah Yoga now has videos up on YouTube to help you on your fitness journey (just search Red Cheetah Yoga on YouTube) and we will be launching videos in collaboration with Soul Akademy in the near future.
And, by the way, when Gabby and I were complete with her stretching assessment and training, she said all of her low back pain was completely gone! She has been deadlifting like a champ ever since.