Written by: Kevin Cann
Lower back pain is a common ailment that affects nearly 1/3 of the American population. I would imagine at some point in our lives each and every one of us will suffer from some lower back pain. Due to the high number of Americans that suffer from pain, I see quite a few of them in the gym.
They typically bend their spine in different directions because “it feels good.” They may also roll their lower back out over a foam roller for the same reason. Over the years I have come to learn that the majority of the people that come to me in pain have a stability problem somewhere. We need to identify that stability problem and correct it.
The problem with just bending the spine back and forth and foam rolling is we are further mobilizing a body that lacks stability. They cannot control the range of motion they currently possess, but they are attempting to add more range of motion. This can actually be dangerous.
Our body tightens up for a reason. The reason is to protect our joints from moving into positions in which we may potentially injure ourselves. We need to teach our body how to properly stabilize and then move through its full range of motion.
The human body is a complex organism that is constantly communicating from top to bottom and bottom to top. One important piece of this communication network is actually our feet. The fascia in our body plays a major role in this communication. It gives the body structure and it helps to connect the body top to bottom.
A few of these fascial lines connect to the bottom of the feet. In these fascial attachments are a lot of nerves that send quite a bit of information to the rest of the body regarding how to properly stabilize the hips and spine.
When we wear shoes we lose a major piece of spinal stability because we lose that communication pathway from the bottom of our feet. Also, from wearing shoes, there is a large population that has developed fallen arches. When we develop fallen arches we negatively affect the communication of the fascial chains and lose mobility in our big toe.
Over time this can lead to the development of bunions, increased risk of ankle sprain, knee pain, and even back pain. If you are a coach and you assess movement, you should always be sure to check the feet. I always make my clients take their shoes off to perform the assessments and just looking down as they stand can tell you a lot of information.
When we perform the appropriate corrective exercises, I always have them barefoot and actually start with teaching how to get the foot in the appropriate position. We need the big toe, little toe, and heel to make a tripod for balance and a wider base to apply force through. From here we need to create a strong and stable arch in the foot.
There are a few ways we can go about doing this. If we “screw our feet into the ground” we should see a nice arch form. Other techniques are, you can lift your big toe up to create tension in the foot, hold that tension and place the big toe back onto the ground. Lastly, a good cue from Chris Duffin is to pretend you are standing on the edge of the globe.
This is the position our feet need to be in when we do any exercises in the gym. If the arch collapses, our hips will internally rotate and our spine will lose stability, increasing our risk for injury. From there, maintaining external rotation in the hips and taking a proper diaphragmatic breath are also important.
Oftentimes people will lean forward in the squat and quickly want to blame their ankle mobility. They may even be able to decrease their forward lean with heel lifts. Yes the heel lift gives us some more ankle mobility, but it also gives us a fake arch in the foot.
We need proximal stability in order to have distal mobility. Remember, I said earlier that the majority of the people that I have seen in pain, or that have mobility issues, actually have underlying stability issues. In order to have proper ankle mobility we need the proximal stability of the foot. If we cannot stabilize our foot our body will still find a way to do it. This is where you will see the big toe and ankle lock up.
To correct this, get the big stable arch in your foot and perform your ankle mobility drills to help ease the tension placed on the system from the nervous system trying to provide stability. A good way to do this is maintain the arch while squatting since the squat is an important movement pattern and requires ankle mobility.
If you suffer from lower back pain, ankle pain, knee pain, or fallen arches, you cannot overlook the importance of the foot. Rolling out the bottom of the foot with a lacrosse ball and working on maintaining proper positions in the gym without shoes on can go a long way to improving your pain. Also, try going outside and walking on uneven terrain for 15-20 minutes per day. The beach is a great place to do this if you live close to one. This can help retrain the proper function of the foot and get you feeling better than ever.