If you read a couple of books about back pain you’ll see some startling statistics. There are obscene, tragic numbers along the lines of “More than 70% of adults will experience debilitating back pain at least once in their lifetime.” That particular line was from a book I read about the Alexander technique. Until recently I had never had to contemplated back pain, despite my affinity for lifting heavy weights and moving at speed in potentially risky movements. The culprit for my recent bout of back discomfort was simple and sinister: sitting down.
I looked everywhere but this simple position that I find myself in for many hours every day. I tried altering my deadlift, squat, and pullup form, all to no avail. I felt fine when I worked out, horrible when I sat, and yet it never crossed my mind until a few days ago.
I stood up from my chair to take a deep breath. I was experiencing some spinal compression and my lung capacity was being affected. As I exhaled and relaxed, suddenly my whole body swung to the left. It felt like I was being dragged from the left hip. Surprised, I straightened up, let myself relax, and tried to see if it would happen again. It did. When I walked, if I let up on my spinal tension for a second I saw the same thing. My right leg got dragged over my left and that is the direction my body wanted to go. My habits had caught up with me to the point where simply standing with my shoulders squared and my feet pointing forward was taking effort and producing tension I hadn’t even been aware of.
But back to the sitting, which was typically what brought the pain out. Sitting meant aching muscles. When I examined my posture, my back was straight and flat, my lower back was wide, I didn’t slouch, and I don’t let my neck get pulled backward and get crimped.
What I did notice was that my feet, while flat on the floor, were not parallel to each other. I usually had my left foot about 6-12 inches out in front of my right. I don’t know why, but I knew I could try to do it differently.
Whenever I experience pain while lifting weight, it is typically because I have quit performing a movement pattern, typically the opposite of the movement I am currently doing the most of. For instance, pain while military pressing might mean that I had quit doing enough dips, which more or less are the opposite movement. The tissue has lost its proportion in those planes. So if I start doing dips, in that example, I’m usually able to press without pain fairly quickly, despite the fact that the “pinched shoulder nerve” diagnosis that doctors are so fond of, and the exercises they prescribed, never helped.
With the sitting, this was what I tried to do with the only anomaly I could find in my posture. I started putting my right foot forward instead of my left. The relief was almost instantaneous. The pain did not vanish, but it lessened substantially after just a couple of minutes. It feels a little bit awkward, which tells me something–that I never should have let it get to this point. I don’t want movements or positions that should be fundamentally sound to feel clumsy or peculiar.
When I stand at rest, I do the same thing. Right foot slightly in front of the left, with three points of contact on the ground–the heel, ball of the foot, and area just below the pinky toe on each foot. In that position, even when I’m at rest, my body wants to rotate to the left, but the tendency is diminished. With the right foot leading the ability of the hips to shift involuntarily feels lessened, but with less strain. I do not have to consciously hold myself straight with this one simple adjustment.
My next goal will be to start scaling down the position and gradually get my feet back to parallel when I am standing and sitting, and to reach a point where my spine and hips do not want to rotate to the left when I relax.
I’m not doctor and none of this is a substitute for medical advice. But if you have pain while you’re sitting, take a look at anything that sticks out. What are your limbs doing? Try rearranging them. It has helped me a lot, and maybe you’ll have similar results.
Strength training for body and mind