This Stretch Can Make Things Worse
Check out the warm-up section of the gym. I'd bet that there's at least one person lying on their back hugging their knees to their chest in an attempt to stretch their tight or aching lower back.
Why do so many people get in this controversial lumbar spine flexed position when they're in pain? Because of the "feel good effect" that it creates. Stretching is one of the simplest ways to elicit an analgesic (pain relieving) effect and perceived benefit.
Problem is, that improvement in pain is almost always short lived, and sometimes causes a more severe counter reaction, usually within 5-15 minutes after the stretch, that leaves that person less mobile and in more pain than even before they started stretching.
Let's get into the role of the lumbar spine. That role is to create stability and act as a force transduction mechanism in, out, and through the extremities. A resilient lower back is a strong and stable lower back. Quality movement patterns matter a lot. And building solidified foundational movement patterns starts at owning your spinal position.
Knowing that the lumbar spine functions in a stability role, it'll make more sense as to why many people are irritating their lower backs when stretching with their knees to the chest. Both the ligaments and musculature support each spinal segment more superficially, as well as deeper musculature between pieces of the vertebrae called multifidus and rotatories muscles.
These tiny muscles don't act as dynamic movers that alter positions at the spinal segments themselves, but rather sensory organs that in a split second turn on or turn off widespread tone throughout a region according to perceived threat. That threat is usually deep spinal flexion combined with contact into the lumbar region, whether it's from driving your lower back down into the ground hugging the knees to the chest, or sticking a lacrosse ball into your lower back and rolling it around. Once these bad boys turn on, it takes hard work to get them to turn back off, resulting in normalized tone through key musculature in the hip, spine and pelvis.
Instead of continuing to attempt to treat the symptoms, you need to address the key origins of why you have that pain or dysfunction in the first place.
Do This Instead
Recovery Breathing With Manual Hip Flexor Mobilization
- Lay down on your back with your feet and lower legs fully supported on an elevated surface like a bench or box.
- Allow your hips to move to around 90 degrees flexion, and your knees to bend at 90 degrees as well.
- From this position, place a foam roller (or ball) between your knees and keep contact with the roller between your knees at all times. This contact doesn't need to be maximal, but minimal effective dose of adductor control to keep position.
- Now tap into parasympathetic (restful) breathing, using an extended inhale, pause for a few seconds at the top, and lengthening out your exhale as long as possible. You want this breath to be coming primarily from your belly expanding at 360 degrees to allow some carryover on its effects more locally at the iliopsoas group, which is very close to the diaphragm and secondary respiratory muscles surrounding the abdominal cavity. Spend a few minutes here (without texting or talking) and just focus on your breath.
- Now use your hands on either side of your pelvis and to contact the inside of your hips (where a portion of the deep hip flexors are located) lightly with your fingertips. Your index and middle fingers should sink down behind the front side or your hip bone (ASIS) and maintain constant 5/10 subjective pressures. Continue to breathe here as you keep contact, and stay here for another few minutes.
Mobilizing the hip flexors, activating the glutes, and grooving the foundational movement pattern for the day is a good follow-up. My recommendation to use directly after supported breathing is the half-kneeling hip flexor stretch with overhand reach to bias the deep hip flexors. Do this sequence properly, and you'll be amazed at how quickly your pain will dissipate... without it rearing its ugly head 15 minutes later.