Look at these pictures. Do they look like you? Does your back have these two prominent and large back muscles? Do you have low back pain?
If you answered yes to the first two questions, you probably do have low back pain. Those back muscles you see are called the thoracic erector spinae. They attach from the pelvis and sacrum and into the ribs and thoracic vertebrae. They help you extend your back and thoracic spine. So what’s the big deal? They also correlate with low back pain.
Back Muscles: Lumbar Erector Spinae
You see, just underneath these muscles are another group of muscles called the lumbar erector spinae. The lumbar erector spinae fatigue easier than any other anti-gravity torque producing muscle. When this happens, the thoracic erector spinae take over the job of the lumbar erector spinae. Because the lumbar erector spinae stabilize the spine, this compensation leads to back pain.
Wait, what is an anti-gravity torque producing muscle?
Anti-gravity torque producing muscle is a lot of fancy words to describe a certain type of muscle. There are three different types of muscle: deep anti-gravity, large torque producing anti-gravity, and movement muscles.
- The deep anti-gravity muscles respond to sensory input and primarily stabilize joints. They lie deep within the body, which means they stay close to the joint, enabling them to protect it.
- The large torque producing muscles also respond to sensory input, but they also move the joints, usually slowly and with control.
- Finally, the movement muscles move you. They respond to conscious control. This is when you decide to move a muscle. These muscles are usually long and thin. They are usually the muscles you think of when you think of getting strong: biceps, abdominis rectus, etc.
Movement muscles don’t really fatigue. They rarely atrophy or become smaller in size. Anti-gravity muscles, on the other hand, fatigue easily. In fact, the lumbar erector spinae fatigue easier than any other torque-producing anti-gravity muscle. When the lumbar erector spinae get weak, the thoracic erector spinae get large and tight. This often leads to a flat thoracic spine (upper back) and back pain. Most people with this pattern are often athletic. Because they tend to bring their chest out from the flat spine, they look like they have good posture. In reality, they don’t. This muscular pattern is so relevant that researchers in the US in the field use the size of the lumbar erector spinae to determine if the person has back pain. In Australia, they use the multifidus.
What should you do if you have this movement pattern?
This can be tricky because it does take time to reverse. It also requires very specific cues and techniques to undo. The first step is to develop strong deep anti-gravity musculature. To do this,
- Refer to my post on How to Stand where I discuss how to stand correctly.
- Walking barefoot on uneven surfaces, hiking, and increased standing times also help.
- But be sure to start these activities gradually.
- Use the GravityFit protocol or another protocol that uses sensory input and compression can be helpful if available to you.
- Practice feeling your body in space. Body awareness develops the anti-gravity muscles.
- Push your arms/hands against a desk/steering wheel when you can. This compression activates the serratus anterior which helps you develop good deep musculature as well as a proper thoracic curve.
Next, you can develop the large torque antigravity muscles.
- Lean forwards slowly while maintaining the posture described in How the Stand.
- From here, you can add in taps, step ups, etc.
- Lunges also help develop both deep and torque producing anti-gravity muscles.
I am cautious giving out advice about developing anti-gravity muscles. These muscles require very specific cues done in the correct posture to grow. They usually fatigue neurologically versus metabolically. This means we can’t feel when they fatigue. That puts them at great risk of over-fatiguing. When this happens, these muscles end up getting weaker. Finally, slow progression is required to develop these muscles: this challenges a lot of people. I really do recommend finding a therapist who understands this process as you learn to use these muscles. It is important to develop these skills correctly and safely.