How to eliminate back pain from sitting
A no nonsense approach to improving your back's welfare
Authored by someone who struggled with pain for 10 years and overcame it with the guidance of a master physiotherapist and yoga instructor
I had regular back pain for years between the ages of 15-25, hospitalised multiple times, placed on drugs for way too long, several embarrassing spasm episodes, you name it. I'm proud to say that I'm now grown 30 year old man who is completely pain free and moving even better than I used to. I'm here to show you how.
Let's clear the air first. Unless you've had a terrible accident, injury or have some extreme condition. The reason you have pain is because a) you're weak or b) you're stiff, or both.
If you're currently in pain and thinking "why me?" and looking over at your friends who are much less healthy than you and have no pain and think "there must be something wrong with me / my genetics are bad / I do everything right this is so unfair". Trust me, I've been there.
It really doesn't matter if someone is better off than you, because life sucks for you right now, all you can do is figure out what helps you, how to move forward, and how to stay healthy.
So, in this article let's look at a few things:
Why should you listen to me?
I really have no scientific standpoint for my claims, as I have a technology degree, not a physiotherapy degree. What I can tell you is that, I've tried and tested hundreds of different rehabilitation plans.
Finally, towards the end of my decade of back pain, I met a physiotherapist and a yoga instructor (who has a degree in astro physics, so his approach is both scientific, and true to the yoga way). They told me the truth - I was a weak and stiff excuse for a human (actually the yoga fellow said this much nicer - but let's call a spade a spade). I've worked with these guys for over 1,000 hours and refined workouts and routines. So I've compiled what I know and I'm going to give it to you.
Firstly, sitting is not the problem, not moving is.
Sitting is inherently not a bad position. Our bodies are extremely capable, we can do hand stands, we can squat, we can do backflips. The problem is that we sit in ONE position, and our bodies adapt to this. In time, we develop kyphosis (forward head posture) to stop our head falling off and we become stiffer than a block of cement.
So if you're sitting all day, change it up a bit, squat at your desk, do a runners lunge, go for walks, do yoga, get the blood going.
Secondly, you can't undo 10+ hours of sitting per day with 30 minutes of movement.
That's just unrealistic. Seriously, if you're sitting all day at work, and come to do my routine below for 30 minutes, then go and sit on a computer to play games or sit on the couch for another 3 hours before bed. Forget it, you're gone.
"But Rhys, I've got a $2,500 herman miller spine controlling massage chair that was custom fitted to MY back and the doctor said it's good"
A chair is a chair, sure, some will allow you to feel more comfortable, or even help your pain in the short term. But honestly, you're still in a compromised position, buying a good chair for back pain is akin to bucketing water out of a sinking ship.
Without further delay, here's exactly what you should do to be on the road to recovery.
Of course, take my advice with a grain of salt. I'm trying to give advice that is salient for all humans. Take this advice on board, apply it to your life, and pick and choose what elements worked for you.
Get a standing desk / sit less
The advantage is that your spine is in a neutral position, meaning its natural curve is intact. This curve is lost when you are sitting. Additionally, your hamstrings are not in a shortened state.
A standing desk isn't the silver bullet to counter the problems caused from sitting, it's just a big improvement. Standing is still just ONE position, that we must vary.
If you can't afford a $1,000 electric desk, just grab two milk crates and place them on top of your desk for the time being.
You should be able to talk to your work's HR department and get a standing desk.
A good employer will understand, they have contracts with existing furniture suppliers so just book a meeting with them and explain your reasoning.
I used to get all sorts of looks when using mine, here's how the conversations usually go:
Do you use that because you have back pain?
No I use it to prevent back pain
Do you feel weird using that?
No I find it weird that people sit all day and consciously choose to degenerate.
Oh, you should just get a posture pedic chair.
It might be a while before you can get a standing desk. In the mean time, just try to vary your posture. Sit in a squat, kneel at your desk, stand while you are on the phone and find something to hang from at lunch.
Make sure your monitor height is at eye level or above. In this photo i lowered my desk a bit, noticed how I started to develop a forward head tilt? You can proper your monitor up with yoga blocks or a box of paper.
Perform a daily mobility routine.
This is the one that works best for me. It's suitable for beginners, and can be scaled as you progress.
I recommend at least thirty minutes of mobility per day, at the very least. In addition to this, I recommend you engage in at least 3 hours of strength work per week. Of course you can do any other activity on top of all this.
30 Minutes Per Day. Perform the following exercises for 3 minutes each, perform this for two weeks and see how you feel.
Half Saddle ~ 3 mins each side
If you're just starting out you might only get into this position. That's fine, just spend time here.
Eventually you can move into a full half saddle. If this is too easy, do a full saddle with both legs.
Runner's Lunge ~ 3 mins each side
Your legs probably spend the majority of the day IN FRONT of you. This stretch is amazing for your hip flexors.
Do lots of variations, whatever feels good for you.
Foam roll & Yoga Wheel ~ As long as feels good
Great position to counter kyphosis and make a bit of space for your lungs.
You can also roll out your hamstrings, lats or whatever while you are here.
Front splits ~ 3-5 mins each side
Sitting shortens your hamstrings. Give them some length.
Full Squat ~ 3+ minutes
Pretty basic. Do it. You'll feel your spine lengthen. I can sit in a squat for 10-30 minutes comfortably. At first, your ankles might not be on the ground, that's cool, stick with it.
Sphinx and updog ~ 3 minutes
This is just a lovely position to extend your back, you can work on your laptop like this. Do some up dogs after you're warm, which is a slightly more intense variation.
Cat Cows~ 3 minutes
These just feel nice.
Supine Twist ~ 3 minutes
Rock slowly side to side. This should feel amazing. Add your own flavour to it.
That's really the basics of it. Take them, try them for two weeks, disregard what you don't enjoy, employ other movements you do enjoy.
You should now be a) creating ergonomics that are conducive to your spine health and b) employing a mobility routine to counter the sitting that WORKS FOR YOU.
The next step is to introduce a strength program. I'm going to post another blog in the coming months that goes over exactly what I do. Personally, I recommend mixing weight lifting, yoga and calisthenics.
Thanks for making it this far!
I wish you all the best with your own back-pain problems, let me know in the comments if this plan has worked for you.