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Check your hips

I’m here to share some helpful, quick & dirty information about the most common complaint I hear from students in classes (and life in general): chronic low back pain.

 Chronic Low Back Pain? Check your hips!

8 quick & dirty stretches for chronic low back pain

I’m here to share some helpful, quick & dirty information about the most common complaint I hear from students in classes (and life in general): chronic low back pain.

Before we go any further, please note that no one answer that will work for everybody. If something doesn’t feel right, or you have been told by a doctor not to do any of these stretches, don’t do it. Working with your doctor, physical therapist, or a private session with a qualified pilates or yoga teacher would be an excellent alternative for you. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, you can skip the “why” and go straight to the stretches if you want to.

There are lots of potential causes of low back pain, (we could go on forever, but I promised you quick & dirty) and lots of potential answers, but I’m here to briefly address one that most people are surprised to hear: tight hips can cause low back pain.

One of your hip flexor muscles, the psoas muscle (pronounced so-az) begins in the lower vertebrae of our spine and connects to the inner thigh. The psoas is also one of the biggest and thickest muscles in the body. With so much time in our lives spent sitting – at a desk, in a car or bottomless mimosas at brunch, your hip flexor muscles and hamstrings can shorten and tighten. Short or tight hip flexors on one or both sides can pull the spine and pelvis in all sorts of different directions, causing compression and discomfort (as well as a whole slew of other conditions) in the low back. By stretching the hips, it is possible to alleviate some of that tension, making more room for your lower vertebrae.

If that wasn’t enough reason to give some extra TLC to your hips, I’ll try another fun fact: the psoas muscles are also connected with the sympathetic nervous system or our “fight or flight” responses. When your brain is alarmed, your body’s natural response is to tighten and contract your psoas. So, when your hips are tight from life, it sends a message to your brain that you are in danger, and you remain in a more heightened (i.e., stressful) state at all times.

TLDR: Tight hips can = low back pain. 

Here are some easy stretches and gentle strengthening exercises that you can do at home, at work or in line at the coffee shop (I dare you!) to help with chronic low back pain.

1. Cat/Cow & Hip circles


Get on your hands and knees in a tabletop position, make sure that your wrists are stacked right under the shoulders and your knees are stacked right under the hips.

Inhale: Gently start to tip the pelvis forward, dropping the belly to the floor and bring your gaze forward.

Exhale: Tuck your chin and round your back like a scared Halloween cat.

Approximately 10 rounds.

Then, start to circle your hips in one direction, drop them down towards your heels and then up and over to the other side. You can play with making big circles or little circles.

Bonus: combine cat/cow & hip circles together, back bending or rounding as you circle your hips around. If you’re worried about how it looks, close your eyes. Make sure to move in both directions.

2. Lunge


Place one foot forward on the floor directly underneath the knee. Back knee stays down on the floor, maybe under a blanket or cushion if there is any discomfort in the knee. Make sure that your front knee is directly over or behind the ankle, but NOT in front of the ankle to protect the knee. You should feel the stretch in the front of the hip. If you feel sensation in your low back, don’t lunge as deeply.

Soften your shoulders down your back and BREATHE. Hold for at least 6 breaths on each side.

3. Figure 4


Lay down on your back and bend both of your knees. Place one ankle over the other knee, keeping the lifted ankle and foot flexed. Either stay here or for more of a stretch, reach forward and grab onto the back of the bottom thigh or front of the bottom shin. You should feel stretching sensation deep in your gluteal region. Try to avoid arching in your low back.

Relax your shoulders and neck, and BREATHE. Hold for at least 6 breaths on each side.

4. Hamstring/IT band floor stretch


Grab a belt or a long piece of rope or something similar (I used a dog leash). Lay down on your back, bend one knee and place that foot on the floor, extend the other leg up towards the ceiling. Loop the middle of your strap-like object on the arch of the extended foot. Most people will have to have a bend in the extended leg, and this is perfectly acceptable. Square your pelvis and hold the rope with your hands, one strap in each hand.

Relax the shoulders and neck and BREATHE. Hold for at least 6 breaths.

Bonus: If this feels comfortable in your body, start to gently draw the extended leg across the body. You should feel the stretch transition to the outside of your extended leg’s thigh. Hold for at least 6 breaths.

5. Goddess pose


Feet go wider than hip distance apart. Bend knees, and squat down, placing your hands together and elbows on the inside of your knees. Keep your weight in the back of your heels, and gently press into your hands, which will help spread the knees farther apart and open the chest. Soften your shoulders and BREATHE.

If your heels can’t touch the ground, place a folded blanket under your heels to bring the ground to your feet. If it is challenging to balance, place a block or a cushion under your butt – you’ll still get the same benefits of the stretch :D.

6. Legs up the wall


Find a wall and lay down on your back, scootch your butt as close to the wall as is comfortable and extend your legs up the wall. Knees do not have to be straight. Relax your neck and shoulders. You can hold for as long as is comfortable (I like to read like this).

If that is too sensitive, find a chair or table that is about knee height. Lay down on your back and rest the back of your calves on the top of the table.

7. Sphinx


Lay down on your stomach like you were going to watch tv and place your forearms on the floor. Feet go about shoulder-distance apart and relax your glutes. Your elbows will stack underneath your shoulders, or, if that is too intense in your low back, walk your hands farther forward to take the stretch into your mid & upper back. Try gently pressing into the floor to open your chest.

Bonus: If it feels comfortable, you can relax your head down towards the floor to add a neck stretch.

8. Move!


If all else fails – you don’t have time, you’re tired, all of this sounds boring or intimidating, just move! A lot of us have jobs that require sitting, we love to binge on Netflix, travel by car or plane, and it turns out that there are days when we spend most of our waking hours sitting – Do your best to get up and move around throughout the day. Every little bit helps!

There is no one answer that is right for everyone, but the more you can inform yourself and listen to your body to learn what you need, the better. We live in a culture that revolves around sitting, so it usually takes some extra thought to make sure to love on our low back & hips.

Did I miss anything? Do any of these work for you? What are your favorite tips to help keep your low back happy & healthy?

Wishing you happy hips!