LIKE 80% OF AMERICAN ADULTS, I’ve experienced lower-back pain at some point in my life. In fact, to varying degrees, it happens almost every time that I deadlift, squat, or clean. And I’m tired of it.
So I made an appointment with Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., a doctor of physical therapy based in New York City and the creator of Movement Vault, an online library of active stretches, muscle contractions, joint mobilizations, and myofascial techniques. After an initial assessment, Wickham first gave me the “award of the month” for lack of external rotation in my legs.
Wickham also gave me five movement and training tips that everyone can use to lift pain-free. (As always, definitely speak with your doctor before attempting any new lifting or stretching program.)
Here are Wickham’s five ways to recognize and then fix lower-back pain.
1. You can’t lift correctly if you can’t move correctly
I knew I was prone to overextending my back when I lift a barbell overhead, but I always assumed that I could correct it. One issue I didn’t realize: My tight hips were tilting my pelvis forward, which made proper form impossible. “There’s always that cue to keep your ribs down and engage your abs,” he said. “Almost no matter what you’re going to be flaring out, and you’re going to be hinging at that low back.” His takeaway was blunt: “You can’t cue yourself out of a mobility restriction.”
The fix: First, recognize all your mobility limitations, because even tight hips can affect overhead movement.
2. You need mobility throughout your whole spine, not just in one spot
To test the mobility of my spine, Wickham had me stand up and lean as far back as possible as he took a picture. When he showed me how I was bending, I was unpleasantly surprised. “It’s pretty flat, flat, flat,” he said, pointing from my neck down to my mid-back, “and then you have a nice amount of motion that happens right at that low back, and that’s pretty much where you’re having the pain.” Wickham estimated that 80–90% of my spine’s movement comes from just two vertebrae, leading to stress in the facet joints of those vertebrae.
3. Just because you can touch your toes doesn’t mean you’re flexible
Even though I have tight hips and an uneven spine, I hoped that, at least when we got to the hamstrings, I’d be home free: I dove in college, and can still touch far past my toes. When Wickham had me lie on me back and lifted my right leg as far as it would go, it easily got to 90°, and I smirked. But, when he asked me to raise that same leg on my own, I could barely get it to 80°. “So if you actively do it and only get to here,” he said, “and then I passively get you further, that means that it’s more of a motor control issue, which we would start to work on.”
The fix: Check for muscle and strength imbalances on both sides of your body.
4. Mobility problems usually become worse under load
After the full-body exam, my consultation went from bad to brutal. Wickham had me deadlift 135lbs, and he immediately pointed out that I didn’t raise the bar in one clean line because my knees came too far forward. (He instructed me to move more in the hips, rather than the knees.)
Next, he noticed that when I start my lift, the bar makes a tiny clinking noise, a sign that I’m not in proper position for the lift. He recommended that anyone deadlifting “create full-body tension before even lifting off the ground”—often cued as “taking the slack out of the bar”. For me, that meant engaging my lats and hamstrings, putting my back in a better position before even taking the bar off the ground.
The fix: Use lifts to diagnose mobility issues, and then fix them without as much weight.
5. You might not even know how to move your spine to begin with
To increase the mobility in my spine, Wickham suggested that everyday I practice the cat-cow: get on my hands and knees, and then alternate arching and rounding my spine. Instead of blasting through the exercise as I usually do, though, he told me to go vertebra by vertebra. At that slower pace, I realized that I can’t feel each part of my back, let alone control it.
The fix: Think of creating a slow wave up and down your back. That, and practice, practice, practice.