Is poor ankle mobility causing your back pain? Are your hip flexors fooling you into believing your squat form is good enough? First, if your low back pain is severe, stop and click the following link in case you have a bulged disc. Now let’s delve into the science of achieving pain free leg days. The key to pain free leg training is to attain the proper balance of mobility and stability. I have struggled to achieve this balance for many years, often fighting tight hips and ankles and a hyper mobile lumbar spine. The result? Pain.
Only in the last 12 months or so, with the help of my own coaches, have I finally understood how to get my body stabilized (or mobilized) in the right places. For years, I assumed low back pain was just a part of leg day. I resolved to “work through it” and “get more flexible”. Many people do yoga or core strengthening exercises yet they still grit their teeth through pain during or after training. I don’t give a damn if you can plank for 3 minutes or do yoga 5 times a week. If your ankle mobility sucks, you will hurt your knees or low back squatting. Likewise, even if you can do a perfect “Up Dog”, “Down Dog”, if your thoracic mobility sucks, or if one hip is more mobile than the other, pain is in your near future.
Many people will scoff at the suggestion that yoga isn’t a cure all. Therefore, I am prepared to be tarred and feathered. A lot of serious athletes fail to understand that hyper mobility in one area (such as the lumbar spine) is terrible for you. Likewise, too much stability in the thoracic spine is a recipe for shoulder problems. If your only exercise is yoga, knock yourself out. If you’re training like an athlete for other sports, then pay heed to the bigger picture.
Alternating levels of stability/mobility in the body
The body has evolved for efficient and pain free movement, with incredible capacity to run, jump, climb, and move really heavy shit. Our bodies work best with alternating levels of stability and mobility.
- Shoulders: Stable, with specific exceptions.
- Thoracic spine: Mobile
- Lumbar spine: Stable
- Hips: Mobile
- Knees: Stable
- Ankle: Mobile
- Feet: Stable
The design is brilliant, but unfortunately the function is highly adaptable. A problem anywhere in this chain will lead to a compensation in the area above or below it. When we force the body to compensate, we force upon it pain. Check out a few examples from my own bag of painful tricks.
Example 1: Insufficient Dorsiflexion in the Ankle
When the ankle has limited dorsiflexion (ability to bend foot toward shin) in performing a squat, the knees are simultaneously destabilized and laterally loaded. (This is really bad for your knees.) To make matters worse, limited dorsiflexion forces the pelvis into anterior rotation, making it more difficult to maintain an upright torso during the squat movement. This condition leads to butt wink in the low range of the squat movement, which is a recipe for lower back pain.
Best stretch for improving ankle dorsiflexion.
Example 2: Tight hips and/or hip flexors
Tight hip flexors pull the pelvis into anterior tilt, bad news during a squat. When the pelvis tilts forward, the torso tilts forward, increasing activation of the quads and decreasing activation of the glutes. This condition perpetuates tight hip flexors because the glutes are not performing fully, a good example of why mobility problems can be difficult to fix. The body’s compensating mechanisms reinforce the problem.
Sitting: the worst position for your hip flexors.
There is a more serious cause of hip flexor tightness that isn’t caused by training at all. It’s caused by sitting. When we sit, the hip flexors are in their shortest possible position. If you spend hours a day sitting, you are passively training your hip flexors to remain in a contracted state continually. You must stand up and stretch the hip flexors often!
Best exercise for stretching the hip flexors.
If you have back pain, do yourself a favor and click this link:
The best way to improve your squat is to improve your flexibility. If you want to get more flexible, check out
May your lumbar back be stable and may your hips be flexible…Jacob