Let’s get the short answer out the way first: Probably not. That’s a wrap!
Or, if you have 10-minutes, let’s explore a more nuanced answer. As per usual, the answer isn’t simply yes or no. Today we’ll examine the reasons why you’d want to self-massage your lower back, and effective solutions to your soreness or tightness. Let’s explore that difference, first.
A sore muscle and a tight muscle are not the same. Soreness likely occurs from exercise that is different from average. It may be more aggressive training, or it might be simply a change in exercises. You may feel sensitive or sore for several days (24-72 hours) after your workout. A ‘tight’ muscle may be from being held in a shortened position, or from your body consistently pulling itself into a shorter position. When you’re placed in the position, it’s mechanical shortness, when you’re pulled into the position, it’s neurological tension. Significant difference, similar experience.
Let’s consider our hips, and the position that you’re likely in right now. You’re sitting, aren’t you? Don’t worry, I am, too.
Our muscles tend to work in diagonal pairs across our hips, and you can think of this ‘cross’ as a pretty damn common position:
We often feel this as a tight lower back (thoracolumbar extensors) and hip flexors (iliopsoas and rectus femoris) and common sense would tell you that a massage can help relax these muscles. It can work for a temporary reprieve from muscle soreness, but the culprit is likely an underlying ‘tightness’ that’s keeping you in that position. Why does this matter?
Foam rolling your back may feel good, but it’s not likely to do anything.*
*On its own.
First, let’s talk about how we should massage our lower back. See, the lumbar spine is an incredibly strong structure. We’ve got a stack of bones that are stronger than concrete. They’re great at staying stacked. What they’re not great at is tipping over and rotating, and that’s movement that we generally try to avoid during our core training. If it’s worth avoiding as we get stronger, it’s also worth avoiding when we recover. Using a foam roller for self-massage of the lumbar spine just makes it too easy to beat up the lumbar spine and supportive structures. Tell me if you think either of these positions look comfortable:
Sure, that may feel good while you’re down there, but we’re reinforcing the exact tightness that we’re trying to reduce. That’s likely paddling a canoe up stream, without a paddle, after you’ve dropped anchor. There’s a more successful way.
The most popular ‘home remedy’ for lower back massage is two lacrosse balls taped together. I can’t say I hate it. In fact, I like it more than foam rolling because the gap between the balls provides space for the spinous process of the lumbar spine to move.
Rather than smashing them into a foam roller, they have more space between the balls. At the same time, there’s a smaller cylinder to bend backwards over, meaning we create less extension through our lower back at the same time. It feels like less of a ‘stretch,’ while keeping us closer to a neutral spine then bending backwards over the foam roller might:
Muscle soreness of the lower back is common, be it because you’re learning new exercises, or training old ones. The lumbar spine can be sensitive to direct pressure from a foam roller, and taping two tennis balls or lacrosse balls together, can provide a more specific massage to the muscles while leaving some extra room for the spine. It’s a simple solution that’s often more effective than the foam roller. Huzzah!
Now, let’s look at reducing some of that tightness.
The position that most of us hold ourselves in is one of anterior pelvic tilt, where our lower back and hip flexors are both in a shortened position. We’re in a relatively similar position right now, if you’re still sitting down while reading this:
If you’re experiencing regular ‘tightness’ of your lower back, without anything you’d consider painful, here’s a simple solution to relax that lower back, and keep it relaxed. (If you’re in pain, I’d suggest you check in with a PRI-educated physical therapist. Find one HERE.) We know that stretching is a pretty ineffective way to relax a muscle, and it’s often a way to remind a muscle to contract. That’s the opposite of what we’re looking for. Often, the missing link is even simpler than stretching: It’s breathing.
Let me share two of my favorite breathing drills that can relax your entire body, and specifically that lower back. At MFF, and in my online coaching, we use the Belly Lift Breathing as our go-to reset before all training. This is a great way to refocus your mental and physical energy before and after exercise, but also after some lower back self-massage. It can reinforce the relaxation that comes from massage far more than stretching will:
After helping to shut down some of the tightness in the lower back and hip muscles, we can then follow that by turning your hamstrings back on. Those hamstrings are part of the other side of the hip crosses, and paired with your abdominals, help maintain a position that’s closer to neutral.
This 90/90 Hip Lift drill is all about keeping your heels anchored on the wall, feeling those hamstrings come alive, and completing the same complete exhale practiced during the Belly Lift. Here’s an example from NYC-based PT, Aaron Swanson: