Let's talk about lower back pain
By Rosa Anderson - Jones
As most of us know, the body is interconnected. When one thing is out of whack, we see a chain effect… and often, something has got to give!
For those of you who’ve had issues such as extreme back pain, tightness in the lower back or tight hip flexors, we know how debilitating this can feel. It’s most likely, however, that these are symptoms of a greater issue.
In this blog, I want to talk about the transverse abdominis or TVA. At Barre Base, we often refer to the TVA as our deep core.
First things first, we’re not talking about our 6-pack here. Yes, we all love a 6-pack, but these are superficial… they literally sit on the exterior. Their role is extremely insignificant compared to the major player — the TVA.
What is the TVA?
The transverse abdominis or TVA, is a muscle layer of the anterior and lateral (front and side) abdominal. It is the deepest, innermost layer of all abdominal muscles and is located underneath your rectus abdominis (the six-pack stomach muscle). The transverse abdominis muscle runs horizontally across the abdomen and is recruited almost any time a limb moves.
In class, we usually refer to the TVA as the deep core. We encourage you to focus on the deep core for stability, using your breath to tap into that connection as we move. But for some of us, we just don’t know what we’re meant to be feeling!
How do we envision it?
Have you ever seen a gym-goer lifting extremely heavy weights at the gym, with a belt around their middle? The TVA is like the bodies natural version of this. The TVA can be understood best as “a power ring.” The ring wraps around our middle, supporting the spine.
However, the ring doesn’t quite finish. It envelopes the spine about 90% of the circumference, and the final 10% is the muscles of our lower back — but we're going to look more specifically at the Quadratus Lumborum (QL).
The image above shows this well. These muscles are like a ring around our spine. Think of them as the central point.
The QL connects the top of the pelvis, to the bottom of the ribcage.
When executing any big movement, we should be using our TVA. The TVA should be our primary stabiliser, meaning it should act first! From that point, our body should access its secondary stabilisers. Dependent on the movement, these could be glutes, hamstrings or hip flexors (to name a few).
But when we have a weak TVA or deep core, issues start to arise.
What happens when we don't use our TVA?
When the TVA is struggling to do its job, it passes the torch to our secondary stabilisers — and so many people with a weak TVA bear this load in their QL (the lower back region) and their hip flexors. As the QL becomes overworked (because it’s doing all of the work in stabilising your bod), it begins to get tighter, and shorter. When the QL in itself isn't functioning the way it should, you can feel pain. Additionally, it can present itself as an issue such as hip dysfunction, and it can even affect how well you're breathing.
"Weak or non-existent deep core strength results in secondary stabilisers being over worked, fatigued and prone to injury. The lower back is often one that bears the brunt of this weakness!"
When these secondary muscles are overworked, they become fatigued and tight — and prone to injury! You'll notice too that whatever you seem to do, this pain and tightness doesn't go away.
The band-aid effect
It's human nature to try and focus on what seems the most obvious to us. When we have lower back or hip tightness, we tend to want to stretch it, or we point the massage therapist or physio toward that area that is screaming the most loudly at us. But even if you feel relief short term, you’ll most likely wake the next day with the same amount of tension in the same places. Receiving massage, stretching and mobilising our bodies is vital, but it can only solve some of the issues. Without strengthening the culprit we are going to eventually end up unstable and sore. Sound familiar?
When the TVA is lazy, the hips and low back take over… and honestly, when they’re overworked, no amount of stretching can undo this!
So we need to strip it right back and look at what is causing these overworked muscles. The deep core.
A strong TVA will allow the lower back to relax, and therefore lengthen. You'll begin to notice all of those muscles that were doing the TVA's job start to take a backseat again. These muscles are just as important, but they needn't be doing all of the work. When the body learns to use the TVA correctly, you'll notice significant changes not only in your strength but also in how your body is feeling. When the body shares the load the way it’s designed to, we see less strain — and we see less injury. When we start doing the right thing, we can see the results very quickly.
Barre Base works closely with the team at The Muscle Mechanics. We refer a lot of our clients to these guys, as they take a holistic approach to recovery.
Owner and lead therapist, Theo Wallis, says:
“Lower back pain is a modern epidemic, improving the strength and control of the TVA, as well as the glutes, are major factors for almost all of the cases of lower back pain we see with our clients. It’s awesome to see the Barre Base team addressing the big picture that is so often missed!”
How do we strengthen our TVA?
It takes time to tune into your body. At Barre Base, we focus on breathing exercises, and safe core movements, that will help you re-engage your TVA. We love a few 6-pack burners from time to time, but our main focus in on helping your work your core — 360 degrees!
Remember too, it's often not what exercises you are doing, but how you are executing them. Start slow, listen to your body, and you will feel your body become stronger in time.
If you’ve got back issues, have had a baby, or just feel totally disconnected to your deep core... you’re not alone! Barre Base classes have a huge focus on deep core. We also offer 1:1 and small group sessions to help teach you to reconnect to it.
If you have any questions, please get in touch!