What Does It Mean To Feel Your Lower Back?

Hey friends! In the next 6 minutes I want to talk to you about what it means to feel your lower back.

This conversation builds off of an article I wrote in 2016 titled “Why focusing on NOT feeling your lower back is counterproductive” and I wanted to provide a 2019 update on the topic. In the original article, I used the phrase “feeling your lower back” and it feels most pertinent to explain exactly what I mean by that. I am not talking about lower back pain.

I shall not today attempt further to define the sensations I understand to be embraced with the terminology “lower back pain”, but I know it when I see it, and the sensations involved in this case is not that.

The difference between lower back pain and not lower back pain exists on a continuum of how we experience sensations in our own bodies. My goal today is to discuss what happens when we interpret those sensations of muscular effort as discomfort or pain.

The simplest goal is to do the movement with good form and focus on completing the movement with good form. But, what happens when the quality of movement doesn’t support the quality of your experience you have while doing the movement?

To think that the human experience is as black-or-white as “pain or not” is reductionist thinking, and I’ve been refining my communication skills so that I can better more specific with Ninjas at MFFClubhouse about the bodily sensations they’re experiencing while exercising. Here are some of the most important questions that will come up:

Are you feeling something you can fairly call pain?

Then let’s stop and do an assessment. In response to my first version of this piece, world expert on lower back pain Dr. Stuart McGill said this:

“The issue is to avoid the pain and injury mechanism in those who have a history of disabling back pain. This will allow the pain sensitivity to subside. Then rebuild the back to achieve the goals in a way that does not overdrive their biological constraints. The constraints are a moving target – That is the purpose of assessment. What is it that the person needs and what are the best tools to get them there.

Are you feeling muscular discomfort that needs some adjustments so you can get through class?

Again, let’s try something else, such as finding alternative exercises. If the sensations of muscular effort are too great or distracting, then my goal is to provide cueing or alternative exercises that better let you manage the muscles supporting the well-performed movement pattern. (We’ll talk about some of these muscles later.)

Are you feeling muscular discomfort that’s an appropriate part of strength training?

That’s what we’re here for! For someone who’s new to the process of developing kinesthetic awareness, they might be feeling novel sensations that are entirely appropriate, and are interpreted as uncomfortable. Much of our community at MFF hasn’t had the best physical education experiences growing up, or has been marginalized by the traditional, “no pain, no gain!” gym culture, and I feel so honored to be able to contribute clarity to those sensations, what Ninja Alyce Foster called “emotionally corrective experiences.”

I’d venture that the majority of the conversations that I have after someone uses the phrase “feel my lower back” are about muscular effort, not about disabling back pain. Let me repeat: I am not advocating working through lower back pain. I am offering an alternative for people who find themselves encountering the overwhelming sensation of extension.

The original article was inspired by a lecture that Sue Falsone gave at the Perform Better Functional Training Summit in 2016, where she advised using objective questions rather than focusing on chronic pain. I then watched a lecture form Harvard psychologist Susan David about why “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is terrible advice.

For me, focusing on form and not body awareness is the coaching version of “don’t worry, be happy” and I’d like to hold myself, and the Ninjas that I coach, to a higher standard.

That standard is what Dr. Pat Davidson calls “sensorimotor competencies” which I’ll simplify to being the muscles that we want to feel supporting us in certain positions.

For almost everything, the starting reference points are the hamstrings are obliques.

If you look at Dr. Vladamir Janda’s lower cross syndrome, these are the muscles that we often need help engaging, and they happen to be the primary muscles for controlling the position of the pelvis and rib cage. Basically, if you can tune in to these two major players, you have control over how your body is positioned.

Yes, in modern strength training we often use the phrase, “Movements, not muscles” but prioritizing these major players can act as a compass to help clarify this foundational exercise. your foundational movement patterns. I’ve found that the vast majority of the time, the alternative to not feeling your lower back is actually this simple:

Focus on movement quality first. Then build endurance and engrain the movement pattern. Then load the exercise with resistance. If there’s pain, stop, then find and fix the problem.

It seems like most of the time, investigating the nuances of the movement experience helps to see the people in front of you, rather than simply the bodies, and gives Ninjas the best tools to feel at home in their personal meat suit.

Okay friends, that’s the end of this piece. I’d love to know your thoughts here – Have you ever felt muscular effort that was too uncomfortable? Where do you personally turn your attention as you exercise? Leave a comment and let me know!

As always, if you’re into video, you can watch HGTV right HERE.

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