One of the most common issues I hear from hiking and backpacking clients is back pain. We’ve all experienced it; tight, aching muscles that stretch from just above our hips up into our necks, forcing us into that all too familiar hiker dance- arch, tighten pack, walk, loosen pack, slouch, repeat.
There are plenty of factors that can contribute to this issue, the most obvious being pack load and weight distribution. Making sure heavy items are placed low and tight in the pack, close to the spine, can help distribute weight more evenly on the hips and your body’s center of gravity. Overloading your pack, obviously, won’t help either, so having a good understanding of what you need and why is crucial in any situation. However, both of these corrections are useless if these other points are left unaddressed….
Another two less obvious, but incredibly crucial, factors that go into a pain free back are body alignment and stability. These mean that your joints and the muscles that control them are evenly matched and correctly positioned, and that the muscles are strong enough to hold those positions for long periods of time, under heavy loads.
Here’s an all too common example of how these factors can become an issue…
Many of my clients have what’s called “lower cross syndrome” or “anterior pelvic tilt”, which just means their hips are out of alignment, oftentimes from sitting all day at a desk or in a car. This constant sitting position causes the quads and hip flexors to tighten, pulling down on the front of the hips, while also causing the core to become unengaged and weak, which makes this downward tug even worse. The hips tilt forward, the lower back tightens, and they’re left in a slight, yet constant “stick your butt out” pose.
Now how does this affect your hiking? Well, if you’re constantly walking around in the “stick your butt out” pose, all of the weight you’re carrying around is now sitting on unaligned hips, causing pressure to go straight to the lower back, instead of properly aligned hips contained by your core. On top of that, the hip tilt causes your upper back to curve more (this is because of what’s called the “joint by joint” approach, but just think of it as your body overcompensating), causing even MORE back pain!
Alright, now that you’ve discovered how screwed up your back is, how do we fix it?
The two biggest focuses for this solution should be
-Stretching and mobilizing the quads and hip flexors (allowing the hips to tilt back up)
-Stretching and mobilizing the chest and thoracic spine (allows the chest to open and back to straighten)
-Strengthening the core and posterior chain, including the glutes and hamstrings (pulling the hips back into place and keeping them there)
These stretches and exercises can include the quad stretch, couch stretch, hip openers, cat/cow, chest stretch, planks, side planks, and glute bridges.
One common mistake people make (which I see even in publications such as Backpacker Magazine), is thinking that sit ups, crunches, and leg kicks count as “core stability”. While those exercises have their place in a program, actual stability exercises, such as planks, side planks and Pallof holds, and their variations, are far, far more important. If someone tells you to do 100 crunches a day to fix your back pain, run (or hike) away!
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