The positional and movement demands of BJJ places a high amount of stress on the lower back. Although as you'll see, what's causing the pain, quite likely stems from an area other the back itself. As discussed in the "BJJ Strength & Conditioning: A Complete System?" article, incorrect alignment, activation or mobility in one area can cause a problem in another.
In this article, I want to show you the variation of potential causes, so you can start tackling lower back pain with a complete approach, not just looking at solutions in isolation. Too often people only target one potential cause. When you truly understand the root causes of any problem, it becomes much, much easier to fix it in a systematic way AND avoid the problem in the future, ensuring you can enjoy BJJ, feeling great on and off the mats.
How common is lower back pain?
85% to 90% of the general population and 94% of athletes are impacted by lower back pain at some point
So, whether you've got back pain now or not, knowing the causes and nipping the problem in bud is (1) going to help fix your pain (2) help protect you from pain the future.
What's really making that lumbar hurt?
- Spinal damage or deformities
- Mobility / Flexibility issues
- Lack of strength
- Hip alignment
- Lifestyle factors
- Foot strength
1. Is spinal damage or a deformity causing lower back pain?
While the chances of you having spinal damage or deformities may be low, having a proper medical assessment to know what's really going on, can rule out whether you have any serious issues that can impact your BJJ.
I'll let the research speak for me.
Vertebrae and disc damage are two major causes of lower back pain
This is not to scare you. Its just to point out that there are limitations of solutions you can find on the internet (here or anywhere). Sometimes a medical assessment is needed. BJJ is tough on the lower back, make sure you know what's going on with yours.
That being said, there are some causes that are much easier to address.
2. Mobility / Flexibility causes of lower back pain
Once you rule out any serious damage causing lower back pain, lack of flexibility and mobility is the next most likely cause. With the two most common culprits being hamstrings and hip flexors.
Two separate studies, looking at prevalence of back pain in sports and low back pain in athletes, both found tightness in the hamstring and hip flexors had a significant impact on lower back pain. When we train BJJ, we are constantly flexing at the hip when we raise our knees playing guard, or curling our heels down clamping down on an opponent with our legs. We use those muscles all the time. If you don's stretch them, you will lose flexibility.
When our hamstrings and hip flexors are tight, they are constantly pulling on the pelvis, making it difficult to keep the pelvis in correct alignment, resulting in the strain transferring to the lower back. The parts of our body meant to be taking the load, i.e. the core and the glutes, are not able to function properly when the muscles below them are too tight, i.e. the hip flexors and hamstrings. (I talk more deeply about how flexibility, activation and alignment and other factors are all linked together in this article.)
Although, in reality, as important as flexibility is for lower back pain if you train BJJ, its never just one cause, which is why looking at other factors such as strength are key.
3. Strength and lower back pain
Just thinking about strength in terms of these big movements is limiting, particularly when it comes to lower back pain. We need to think of strength in the areas that are directly linked (literally) to the lower back.
If you've read "BJJ Strength and Conditioning: A Complete System?" you'll have come across the concept of "upstream & downstream", which simply means, when we have pain or disfunction in our bodies, very often it is the structures above (upstream) and below (downstream) of the problem area, that are the cause of the pain or disfunction.
In the same studies referenced earlier looking at prevalence of back pain in sports and low back pain in athletes, the following were found to have an effect on lower back pain:
- Side bridge (plank) endurance had a strong effect
- Trunk flexor (bending over) and trunk extensor (lifting the trunk up) endurance had a moderate effect
- Trunk extensor strength had a moderate effect
The muscles responsible for these positions are the obliques and gluteus medius for the side plank, the rectus abdominis for trunk flexion and the erector spinae and gluteus maximus for trunk extension.
That's bums and tums people, plus the muscles running up and down the spine.
Taking it further, lack of strength can manifest itself in poor alignment of the hips.
4. Hip alignment and lower back pain
The truth is, if your hips don't have a correct pelvic tilt, its more likely a symptom of poor strength in the glutes and core, and poor flexibility in the hamstrings and hips. When this system is not working properly, our hips won't be in the right position.
So why talk about it again here?
- To make you aware of how you hold your hips on a day to day basis and how that could be impacting your back pain. Strength and mobility work is great, but the benefits will be limited if you hold your pelvis in a poor position for the rest of the day.
- So you have another indicator, or signal, to identify what may be the cause of your lower back pain. I.e. do you have an over tilted pelvis, or is one hip higher than then other when you stand up?
While I won't go through the details here, there are several studies (1, 2, 3) looking at the links between hip/pelvic positioning and lower back, so it is certainly worth your attention.
But maybe more important than all of this is...
5. Lifestyle factors and lower back pain
The lower back, along with the glutes, hips and lower core, is at the centre of EVERY major movement we do. I can't think of a single major movement, where some force is not transferred through the pelvic region of the body. Even throwing a ball requires a downward force through the foot, which creates a reaction force that travels up the leg, through the hips and torso, as it rotates to transfer force through the shoulder and arm.
So, it stands to reason, if we don't move, we will lose function, mobility and strength in the part of our bodies linked to so much movement, potentially resulting in lower back pain. Training BJJ is great, but on its own, its not enough.
Research has shown the amount of time spent sitting has strong links with lower back pain, and the amount of time spent walking is conversely related to lower back pain. I.e. sit less, walk more if you want to reduce lower back pain. BJJ is an incredible movement practice, but if we are stagnant for the other 23 hours of the day, we shouldn't expect miracles.
Lastly, the other lifestyle factor is that BMI can have a moderate effect on lower back pain. Although which came first, lack of movement, increase in weight and lower back pain, or lower back pain, causing lack of movement, resulting in increased weight. Its hard to tell, but worth keeping in my mind. If your weight is high and other solutions are not working, it could be another avenue to explore.
Just like the one last area I want to discuss, foot strength.
6. Foot strength and lower back pain
In BJJ we spend so much time on our backs, or working on soft mats, we probably lack in foot strength. According to this article a survey of Americans found they were sedentary (combination of sitting and sleeping) for an AMAZING......21 hours per day. That's 87% of the day not moving.
There is a good chance, even if you're training BJJ for 1.5 hours, 5 days a week, you're hardly using your feet....at all. Think about it, are you spending most of your time off the mat sitting down?
Yes, yes, yes, I know much of BJJ is spent on our backs....but our feet are the foundation for nearly every other human movement. So, its not surprising that this study found that overly inward rotated feet was a contributing factor to lower back pain in women.
Why should you care?
Well, I want to give you the complete picture. Working on all the other potential causes of lower back pain, then not fixing what is the foundation to the majority of our movement, is like rebuilding a classic 1960's Porsche, but keeping the same 50+ year old tyres on. Its not going to end well.
If our feet lack the strength to support the rest of our movements, something else up the chain is going to pick up the slack, maybe the knee, or the hip, or the lower back. Who knows. But with all the demands placed on our body in BJJ, you need to fix the system holistically, if you want lasting results.
So, wrapping it up...
Conclusion: lower back pain causes
Although, try to think of the complete system, not just individual units. It'll serve you much better for fixing your lower back, as well as improving your performance in BJJ. When the body works effortlessly as a unit, everything becomes easier.
At time of writing, I don't have the solutions written up, but they are in the works and I hope to publish some ideas soon.