When many of my equestrian athletes first approach me they often complain of lower back pain and stiffness in the saddle. Unfortunately they have been doing these 3 things below, which have been enhancing the problem.
1. Stretching the long and weak hamstrings
Stretching the hamstrings is pretty much universal advice when it comes to helping with back pain, but to be honest, not only is it a waste of time it can actually make back pain WORSE!
Most people will actually feel a little more at ease after initially stretching their hamstrings., but only in the short term, but this is only because you are stimulating a stretch reflex in your low back muscles, however this only lasts for about 20 minutes.
Because of the nature of the equestrian sport, your hamstrings are already long enough. The reason they feel tight is because the pelvis is tilted forward and putting them on stretch.
When the hamstrings become long they are weak. The person who then stretches them further actually pulls their pelvis into even more anterior tilt, causing the joints of the lower back to push together, causing further lower back pain and ultimately a faulty neurological pathway that leads to poor movement patterns.
2) Performing sit ups to strengthen the core
I can kind of see why people think that doing sit ups will strengthen the core, with being stronger here you would think that you would actually stabilise the spine better and ease the lower back pain. Sit ups actually place massive compressive forces on the spine and over time actually force the discs out of the gap between the vertebrae.
I was at a conference in Long Beach in 2008 where I was fortunate enough to meet Dr Stuart McGill, the world’s leading authority on back pain. He actually demonstrated with real human spines (donated for research), that if you place the spine under the same load as you do when you do a sit up and repeat, over time these vertebrae pop out. It was horrifying and it horrifies me when I see exercise instructors still doing this with their clientele.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the US has set the action limit for low back compression at 3,300 Newton’s (about 730lbs).
Much like the McGill study, they found that repetitive loading above this level is associated with higher injury rates in workers. Guess how much compressive force is put through the spine when performing sit-ups. That’s right 3,300 Newton’s!
Sit ups are a ‘swear word’ from now on if you have back pain ok. I always train my equestrian athletes to stabilise the spine first and then build up the endurance after that.
3) Strengthening the muscles of the low back
Here, I have had to sympathise with a lot of clientele before now who thought that because they had a lower back pain, it was because their back was weak. You see this is exactly what you don’t want to do in the early stages of lower back pain.
You will find that an equestrian athlete with a healthy back will have great muscular endurance in their core musculature not absolute strength.
Many equestrian athletes are already doing too much work through their lower back due to the tilt forward of the pelvis. This compromised position will already place enormous loads on the lower back, without trying to add more.
The fit and healthy lower back is associated with stability and then endurance not with absolute strength.
It would be very unusual to find an equestrian athlete whose hamstrings need stretching due to the nature of the sport. If the person had a posterior pelvic tilt (tip backwards), they would actually have rock solid glutes, hamstrings and abdominals and really weakened quadriceps, hip flexors and lower back muscles. VERY UNLIKELY!
The Equestrian Athlete Coach
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