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The Workout Routine that Saved My Back
Like many others who work desk jobs, my back and hips hate me.
I spend a significant amount of time each day sitting. The more caught up I get in my work, the more likely I am to let my lower back curl down below me or hunch my shoulders forward and let myself lean in toward my computer. At this point, doing so is almost second nature and I do so without really thinking about it. My focus is on getting my work done and only getting my work done– my posture doesn't cross my mind until my entire body aches.
But that doesn't mean that I think about it too late. With some intentionality in the gym and/or on a yoga mat, it's easy to get your back and hips in a healthy place and to strengthen them so that maintaining a healthy posture is as natural as slouching once was.
Stretching for Recovery
If your back and hips are feeling tight or achy, I can't recommend yoga enough. Whether or not you've ever stepped foot in a yoga studio, there are simple asanas you can move through to realign your posterior chain and release tension or soreness.
This is the sequence that I will often do at the end of the workday or during my lunch break when I'm starting to feel tight or achy.
Starting with a series of cat-cow stretches helps get your spine warmed up. Start on the floor or on your yoga mat on your hands and knees. Stack your shoulders above your wrists and your hips above your knees with your spine straight and your head lifted so that it's parallel with the floor.
Inhale deeply and slowly, dropping your stomach toward the floor while lifting your hips and head toward the ceiling. As you exhale, reverse the movement, slowly pushing your hips down and lowering your head while arching your back.
Keep your breathing slow and steady, and work to synchronize your movements with your breath. Think of inhaling and exhaling together as one rep, and move through at least ten reps.
At first, you may think this pose is too simple to really be doing much for you, but Child's Pose is actually one of the most rewarding yoga poses you can perform. For back and hip issues, I recommend doing a wide-knee variation of Child's Pose.
To do so, lower yourself onto your yoga mat so that your knees are at about the width of the mat and your feet are together with your toes pointed behind you. Lower your torso down to the mat so that your forehead rests on the floor and extend your arms out in front of you.
If you have tight shoulders or just particularly broad shoulders, I recommend not extending your arms straight out in front of you in a straight line, but rather to let your elbows come out just past your shoulders and then extending your fingertips forward from there.
When you're in Child's Pose, you want to let your hips sink toward your heels and to let your torso be elongated and relaxed. Resist the urge to let your spine curl up. You should feel a deep stretch through your hips.
Abridged Sun Salutations- Downward-Facing Dog, Chaturanga, Upward-Facing Dog
If you've ever been to a yoga studio– especially if you've been brave enough to go to an early morning class– you've probably done enough Sun Salutations to make you dislike them. They're a staple for the Western yoga studio, and for good reason– they're a great way to practice moving your body in rhythm with your breath and they help activate almost every major muscle group in your body.
They're also great for your back and hips, even if you just do an abridged version, which is what I recommend for this routine.
Start at the top of a pushup– stack your shoulders above your wrists and push out through each of your fingers, not just the palm of your hand. Your back and legs should be straight behind you as you poise yourself on your toes.
Take in a deep breath, and as you exhale, push your hips back and up as if you're trying to bring your stomach to your thighs without moving your hands or feet. Your arms will be extended in front of you, and you should feel a deep stretch along the back of your legs. Let your gaze move in toward your navel.
On an inhale, flow forward back to the top of a push-up or high plank. As you exhale, lower yourself toward the floor by bending at the elbows. Keep your elbows close to your side, making sure they bend back, not out. Otherwise, you risk injuring your shoulders. Lower yourself slowly. You should feel it in your triceps.
With your chest still a few inches off the ground, roll your toes forward as you inhale, pushing your chest forward through your shoulders. Extend through your arms. Your weight should be held off the ground by your toes and your hands, and your head should be back so that you're looking up at the ceiling.
Strengthening to Prevent Aches and Pains
While stretching is a great way to recover from soreness and stiffness, it's also a way to treat the symptoms. In my opinion, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of treatment.
To prevent aches and pains, you'll want to make sure you're strengthening your posterior chain and upper body in a way that helps you maintain proper posture and gives you more endurance throughout the day.
When it comes to strengthening your entire posterior chain, Kettlebell swings are going to be your best friend.
Self-experimenting dude-bro, Tim Ferriss, refers to the kettlebell swing as the king of exercises and provides a clear and concise outline for how to properly perform them here by saying,
• Stand with your feet 6–12 inches outside of shoulder-width on either side, each foot pointed outward about 30 degrees. If toes pointed straight ahead were 12:00 on a clock face, your left foot would point at 10:00 or 11:00, and your right would point at 1:00 or 2:00.
• Keep your shoulders pulled back (retracted) and down to avoid rounding your back.
• The lowering movement (backswing) is a sitting-back-on-a-chair movement, not a squatting-down movement.
• Do not let your shoulders go in front of your knees at any point.
• Imagine pinching a penny between your butt cheeks when you pop your hips forward. This should be a forceful pop, and it should be impossible to contract your ass more. 75 total reps, 2-3 times a week, is the recipe.
Kettlebell swings are great for strengthening your entire back and glutes. As he describes in his book The 4-Hour Body, they can also be the key to getting a bubble butt, if that's on your exercise to-do list. While getting a rounder rump may not be the primary goal when it comes to preventing back and hip pain, it's definitely an added bonus.
More than any other exercise, I noticed the biggest improvement in my posture after integrating t-bar rows into my workout routine.
To perform a t-bar row, you'll want to straddle the t-bar with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance and your toes pointed outward. Bend your knees slightly and squat down to grip the handles of the bar. Start by lifting with your legs so that your back remains flat. You'll want your torso to be at about a 120-degree angle, not parallel to the floor.
Keeping a slight bend in your knees, draw your elbows back and up, keeping them close to your torso. Lift the bar slowly, as high as you can (likely until the weight touches your chest or the bar presses against your crotch, depending upon how you're built), and then lower the bar slowly. Repeat for 8 to 10 reps.
Lat pulldowns are also fantastic for correcting your posture, especially when it comes to keeping your shoulders pulled back and down throughout your day, rather than letting them roll forward.
The downside to lateral pulldowns is that you'll likely need to have a gym membership to do them, as it's unlikely that you'll have the necessary equipment to do them at home.
Performing them is fairly simple and straightforward. Set the machine to the appropriate amount of weight, and then sit so that your knees are secure under the padding in front of you. Depending upon your height and arm length, you may need to go ahead and grip the bar while you're standing and hold onto it as you lower yourself into your seat.
With a wide grip on the bar (aka, holding onto the part of the bar that starts to curve downward), pull the bar down slowly so that it rests just in front of your chest, below your chin. Return the bar up slowly until your arms are fully extended. Perform 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps each, with about thirty seconds to one minute of rest time between sets depending upon your current fitness level.
Why it Matters
Sitting has been described as the new smoking. Dr. James Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, said in an interview with the LA Times, "Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death. The chair is out to kill us."
Extended time sitting has been linked to obesity, high cholesterol, a shorter life span, back and hip pain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a number of other health and wellness complications.
In short, our culture has made sitting a central part of daily life even though our bodies weren't made to be in such a position for an extended period of time. It's why cultures that utilize squatting as a resting position rather than sitting show little to no signs of chronic back pain.
While a few minutes of stretching and weekly exercise can't undo all of the negative effects of sitting, it can help us to mitigate some of the effects and, more importantly, make us more cognizant of how we're treating our backs and hips. If we know how great our backs can feel after extensive stretching and exercising, we're less likely to willingly remain in a seated posture for extended periods of time.
It may be awkward to do in the office, but getting up for five minutes each hour to either go for a short walk or move through the stretches outlined above can do wonders to keep our hips and spines– and, by extension, our entire bodies– healthy.
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