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Prevent an aching back

The art of bending over

Let’s start with a simple test. Stand up. Throw something small on the floor, like a pencil or piece of paper. Now, pick up the item.

Hinge at the hips when bending over

Did you:

  • Bend at the waist?
  • Hinge at the hips?

If you aren't sure how you picked up the item, read on. If you bend at the waist, you are rounding your back and placing strain on your spine to pick up the item. If you hinge at the hips, you are using your glutes (butt) and hamstrings (back of the legs) to support your body weight and pick up the item.

But first, a quick review of some key anatomy:

  • Your waist is located just above your belly button and just below your rib cage. When you bent over to pick up that object, it’s likely you bent at your waist, or your stomach, curving your back like a “C,” or a cashew.
  • The hips are located at each side of the widest portion of your pelvic area. If you are hinging at the hip, you are allowing your pelvic area to move backward, like a hinge. Your back is straight.

What happens when you bend over incorrectly?

When you bend at the waist, you are rounding your back, which puts stress on the spine, according to Jeff Hambrecht, health fitness specialist at Wellmark's Well for Life Center.

“While it’s not a big deal to do this a few times, if you do it repeatedly, say, when you’re doing yardwork, moving items in your home, or lifting weights, it’s repeatedly putting pressure on your spine, which simply isn’t meant for this type of activity,” says Hambrecht. “In fact, overuse injuries are the primary cause of back pain.”

Why is bending over right important?

“Because poor form when bending over and lifting is the number one problem I see clients make, and lower back pain seems to be the biggest problem I hear about,” says Hambrecht. “We go over this repeatedly, it’s that important. If you bend over without being conscious of your posture, there will be consequences.

So, what should you do?

When you bend over, hinge at the hips, engaging your glutes and hamstrings. As you come up, keep your core (abs) engaged.

Think of it this way: Essentially, you are using your hips to bend instead of your spine. Your back should be flat, like a table. Not rounded. “For some people, it’s simply a matter of thinking about engaging the legs and lower body, while protecting the back,” says Hambrecht.

The hip hinge can help improve your back and spine health, while it stretches your hamstrings, strengthens your hips and glutes, and overall creates a strong foundation for the way you move,” says Hambrecht.

The squat vs. the hinge: give it a try

Whether you squat or hinge depends on what you're aiming to accomplish. The hinge should be used for bending over to pick something up, for example. The squat is more for building strength to support a healthier back.

Hinge when bending over and squat to build strength

The hinge

  1. With feet shoulder-width apart, engage or tighten your core and squeeze your middle back (shoulder blades together).
  2. With knees slightly bent, push your hips back, maintaining a flat back with the chest up and core engaged.
  3. Throughout the entire movement, use your core, shoulder blades, glutes and hamstrings. Don’t round your back.

The squat

  1. Place your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart, back straight, core engaged and chest upright.
  2. Start the squat by pushing your hips back and down, as if you are going to sit in a chair.
  3. As you descend into the squat, keep the weight on your heels and drive your knees out slightly, while remaining flat-footed.
  4. When returning to starting position, push through your heels (not the toes) with your chest up and core engaged.

“There are a number of great back strengthening exercises, but if I had to pick one with the most impact, I’d pick the squat,” says Hambrecht. “This simple move helps with flexibility, range of motion and strength.”

If done correctly, the squat strengthens all the muscles that help with your lower back: the hamstrings, the glutes and the core. Also, the squat is easy to learn, there’s a low risk of injury, you don’t need equipment, and it engages multiple muscle groups at the same time.

Hambrecht adds, “The squat is a move that helps you maintain mobility as you grow older. It helps with balance and strength and enables you to do things like get up and out of chairs easily.”

More squat tips:

  • A goal, when descending into a squat, is to get the crease of your hips slightly below your knees.
  • Start with three sets of 8–12 squats and gradually add more repetitions.

Try a foam roller

According to Hambrecht, foam rollers are effective for preventing and relieving back pain. Foam rollers typically cost around $20 and you can use them at home. Just 5–10 minutes a day, foam roll up and down your entire back to break up the tissue and relieve muscle tension.

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