OK, so you either have lower back pain from BJJ or, have had it in the past and don't want to get sidelined from BJJ training again.
If you've not already read "BJJ Lower Back Pain: What Causes it?" much of the research driving this piece is referenced there. I'd recommended at least scanning the article, as without knowing the right cause, it can be difficult to apply the right solution. Otherwise, let's move ahead...
With the demands and pressure (literally) that BJJ places on the lower back, its important to know what's going on with the spine. Research shows it can be a major factor and that kind of damage, may need a very different treatment on top of what I'm going to suggest below.
You've got it checked? Great!
The solutions I will suggest target the following causes (again referenced in this article) to help you get back to BJJ:
- Flexibility in the hamstrings and hip flexors
- Strength in the glutes, core and the spinal erectors
- Pelvic tilt
- Sitting on your arse all day
- Foot strength
âI know this may sound like a lot to cover. Yet, with the a few targeted exercises, you can hit all of these areas in less time than you may think. Then, hopefully, you'll be on the road to enjoying BJJ with a pain free lower back.
1. Flexibility in the hamstrings and hip flexors
Research shows that both have a significant effect on improving mobility, although whether stretching AND foam rolling combined has an additional effect, is still being debated, and there isn't evidence yet to suggest it does. As shown in this study,
If you only pick one, the same study shows that stretching is more impactful than foam rolling.
Where I think foam rolling has a great application is prior to your workouts or BJJ, to increase range of motion without placing too much stress on the tissues when they're cold, then stretching after exercise when the tissue is already warm. Plus, foam rolling/self massage is great for reaching the areas you just can't open up with stretching.
âIf you have the time, I recommend doing both.
Explained in this video by BJJStrength friend and owner of Mobilitas, Scott Isely
One of my favourite techniques is to sit on a chair on top of a lacrosse, or soft ball (or similar) and extend to the leg out slowly, while maintaining good posture, and "flossing" the hamstrings.
I start with the ball close to the glutes, taking time to find the tight spots and then moving the ball further down as the muscles and tissues relax. Perform for 2 to 3 minutes on each leg.
âFor the hip flexors, I like to add a twist to a classic stretch. I hold a dowel at arms length and shoulder height, then once my legs are staggered (really drive with the glutes) I twist towards the lead leg. The twist creates an extra stretch through the hip flexor, and keeping the dowel perpendicular with the shoulders, ensures the twist comes from the lower back and not the upper back. This focuses the stretch more on the hips. With all the demands of BJJ training on the hips flexors, this is a go to stretch. Do 60s on each leg.
Because we're dealing with lower back pain, I avoid any stretches on the hamstrings that require bending at the waist, i.e. touching the toes. These are great stretches, although for lower back pain, I'd avoid them for now.
Instead, I would grab your BJJ belt, wrap it around the foot, then while keeping your core active, hips tilted up towards your head, shoulder blades down and back, and head in a neutral position with a long spine, gradually pull your leg straight up in the air, driving away with the heel.
Find the point of resistance and contract against it, then when you feel your muscles relax, increase the range of motion until you find the resistance again. Keep repeating for 1 to 2 minutes on each leg
2. Strength in the glutes, core and spinal erectors
Planks are great, but when it comes to squats and deadlifts, we're dealing with lower back problems from BJJ. So, we want to choose exercises that reduces spinal load, while still activating the glutes and strengthening the muscles up and down the spine.
Strengthening the core & glutes
âFor the plank, I recommended the below variations, because based on this muscle activation study, they are excellent exercises for glute activation, as well as strengthening the core.
âThe front plank with one leg raised showed gluteus maximus (your main glute muscle) showed higher activation than common exercises like, single leg squat, single leg bridge and single leg deadlifts.
These results surprised me with the level of glute activation on top of the known core strength benefits. When you try to the exercises, you'll see for yourself how effective they are. A fantastic way to combat lower back pain.
I suggest building up to 60s on each leg for each exercise. Don't forget to keep the pelvis tilted 'up' in both exercises.
Now, targeting the muscles up and down the spine (plus some more work on the glutes), I suggest staying away from loaded exercises (deadlifts, kettlebell swings) until you've gone through an extensive program to target the lower back pain that's impacting your BJJ training.
What I do recommended is timed hip hinge holds, although make sure you're doing them with correct pelvic tilt, as demonstrated below.
You want to 'tuck' you pelvis up towards your face and then drive the glutes back to crate the bend, while still 'tucking' the pelvis up. From there, maintain good head position, keep the shoulder blades down and back, while continuing to drive the glutes back.
The first clip shows correct form. The second, incorrect form.
I recommended building up to static holds of 60s to 90s.
3. Pelvic tilt
However, the more important point here, is being aware of the correct pelvic tilt you are holding throughout the day, as discussed in "lower back pain causes article" and highlighted in the picture below.
âIf you can't hold a good pelvic position through the day, you won't be able to hold it when moving while training BJJ.
The one other exercise I would suggest, would be the hollow body hold, demonstrated as the first exercise in the below video. I suggest building up to holds of 60s.
4. Sitting on your arse all day
I've read some alarming stats that the general population only spends 3 hours per day moving, that's 21 hours stationery. Now, you train BJJ, so you're going to be active more than most. But, how much more?
The other reason to get up and walk around is, this study showed walking AND strength training was more effective at combating lower back pain than strength training alone.
So, get up and do some walking. I recommended getting in at least 30 minutes of brisk walking per day, more if you have the time. Trust me, its going to fix far more than just your lower back. I personally find it a great recovery tool from training BJJ.
But, be careful what you wear on your feet.
5. Foot strength
So, before I show you some foot strength exercises, I'm going to go out on a limb and say, your foot wear is probably f*cking up your feet, and everything else up the chain.
Humans have been walking on two feet for hundreds of thousands of years. To think that we need a modern invention of a thick soled, heeled, cushioned shoe to 'protect' our feet is, in my opinion, ludicrous.
Yes, we need to have some protection on our feet. For example, look at the moccasins and how that was used for thousands of years by the native people of what we now call North America (p.s. I'm not a history expert, feel free to correct me on this). But, we do not need a pair of Nike's.
When you read the history of the modern trainer, you'll learn that Bill Bowerman wasn't basing it of hundreds of hours of research, rather incorrect intuition of allowing more 'heel striking' when running. However, the trainer stuck.
If you want to read more deeply on this subject then you can look at the work of Emily Splichal and her book Barefoot Strong, or another great book on the subject Born to Run.
I recommend spending as much time as safely possible (I've had my share of barefoot accidents) living, walking, moving and exercising barefoot or with minimalist shoes that have thin soles and very little cushioning.
Plus the following exercise.
âBuild up to 60s in each direction on each foot. When I say each direction, I mean the foot crossing the slant board from each four sides.
Conclusions on fixing lower back pain for BJJ
This is not a complete program, although will give you some key areas to focus on to start fixing your lower back pain, and get your enjoying BJJ again. A more complete program will build on this foundation, include more extensive strength and mobility work, and most importantly, build in more dynamic movement over time.
At time of writing, BJJStrength will be releasing a comprehensive lower back pain program in the next month or two. Make sure to get on our mailing (sign up below) so you don't miss out when its launched.