Science of Performance: Lumbar Solutions Part I

By Swimming World correspondent G. John Mullen of Swimming Science and COR, Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System.
SANTA CLARA, California, June 19. OVER the past few weeks Lumbar Illusions tackled many myths about low back pain. This next part of the series tackles lumbar solutions.

For improvement three areas are essential: muscle length, strength, and timing (LST).

Muscle Length:
I know what you’re thinking, how is muscle length a solution, since a lumbar flexible spine contributes to low back pain.

Often times, those attempting to improve lumbar mobility do abstract stretches on the low back, stressing the structures of the low back. Stretching improves stretch tolerance, while soft tissue mobilizations at targeted muscles which alter the optimal resting length of each muscle. If the muscle lies in a shortened or lengthened position, weakness occurs.

It is believed (minimal research on the subject), that these muscles become tight in the fascia, the outer covering of every muscle. The fascia runs between muscles and connects much of the body. Unlike the anatomy book studied in college or online, muscles are not precisely differentiated. Cut open a cadaver and you have to literally cut and rip muscles apart from the spider web-like coating connecting structures. This spider web is the fascia.

Self myofascial release (SMR) is a method to improve tension and muscle length in the fascia and muscle. The theory behind improvement is by relaxing a structure in the muscle entitled the Golgi tendon organ. The Golgi tendon organ monitors tension in muscle via mechanical pressure.

Different tools are possible for SMR. I am a huge fan of tennis balls as they provide focal pressure, more precise than a foam roll. However, different areas may benefit from different tools. For those sadists, a baseball or cricket ball is highly effective. These tools allow each athlete to receive a ‘pseudo-massage’ at a 99% discount!

Perform these spots for 30 seconds – 2 minutes for optimal release, realizing the release should feel like a deep massage not someone stabbing you with a knife. A bit of pain is fine, but crying is not beneficial as this prevents relaxation. Also, the more tender the area, the slower you should move. Many of you will be cursing my name on the tensor fascia latae, slow down and don’t move, just lie, breathe from the stomach and ribs and relax as you sink further into the ball.

During each release, make sure you low back is not twisted, as shear stress to the low back is the most damaging.

The areas requiring improvement are structures in the low back and hips. Each of these is not mandatory for each athlete, but if you’re unsure, I’d suggest the shotgun method and do them all!
* Psoas: The psoas is a hip and trunk flexor as well as hip external rotator spanning from all five lumbar vertebrae to the inside of the hip. Often times, this muscle is overactive in the heavy sit-up population due to poor form and in butterflyers due to the repeated spinal flexion. This muscle may inhibit the sagittal plane (hip and knee flexion) and core strength. Directions: Place a tennis ball approximately 2 finger breadths toward the outside of your belly button and two finger breadths toward your feet and lie directly on your stomach. This SMR is difficult to isolate, but just lie on the tennis ball and breathe from the diaphragm for optimal release.

* Quadratus Lumborum: Spans from the bottom of the ribs to the top of the pelvis, attaching to all five lumbar vertebrae. Often tight in swimmers wiggling side to side down the pool in free or back. Tightness in the quadratus lumborum limits frontal plane strength (breast kick). Directions: Lie on your back, approximately 30 degree from vertical with the tennis ball one your side in between your rib cage and pelvis.

* Piriformis: This muscle runs from the outside of the hip to the anterior sacrum and runs directly over the sciatic nerve. Tight in everyone due to excessive sitting. Direction: Long sit with one leg straight and the other bent. Put the tennis ball on the outside of your glute of the straight leg and roll the tennis ball on the outside of your hip.

* Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL): Running from the pelvis to the iliotibial band, controlling the iliotibial band. The TFL is a small muscle, often tight in all athletes performing repeated hip flexion. Directions: Lie on your side and put the tennis ball directly behind your hip. To find the proper position, find your hip bone place the ball two finger breadths behind, and then lie directly on your side with the tennis ball directly behind this bone.

* Iliotibial Band (ITB): Spans from the TFL to the inner aspect of the knee and is tight with repeated hip flexion. Directions: Lie on your side with a tennis ball under your lower thigh, on the bottom leg, just above your knee. Bend the top leg’s knee and place it flat in front of the bottom leg. Push through your top leg and forearms to move the tennis ball.

* Adductor Longus: Running from the pelvis to the inner knee, this is a common tight groin muscle in many breaststroke swimmers and those lacking hip mobility. Directions: Place a foam roll parallel to your spine, then flex your hip and bring it to the side with the foam roll under your inner thigh with your opposite leg straight. Support yourself through your forearms and roll side to side.

* Rectus Femoris: This quadriceps muscle lies in the middle of other muscles and spans from the pelvis to below the knee, another muscle tight secondary to repeated hip flexion, commonly called kicking! Directions: Lie on your stomach, prop yourself on your forearms place a foam roll under the thighs. If not enough pressure is felt with both legs under the foam roll, hook one leg behind the other to mobilize one at a time.

Recent studies have shown SMR via foam roll to the quadriceps improves knee flexion by approximately ten degrees! This improvement in range of motion is important for the hips as tight hips place more stress on the low back, but improving range of motion is not the main goal for those with high low back mobility, improving muscle tissue quality and preventing muscle inhibition is the goal of the SMR.

Perform these SMR for ten minutes before practice and any hip stretching to optimal results, but remember mobility work are like vegetables, nobody likes it, but you’ve got to do it to stay healthy! Spend fifteen minutes a day to keep the physio away!

G. John Mullen is the owner of of the Center of Optimal Restoration and creator of Swimming Science. He received his doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal.

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