Activate Dormant Muscles to Bulletproof Your Lower Back

Last week we touched on the importance of mobilizing the hips/glutes and thoracic spine to improve lower back pain (To read more about that, scroll all the way down below this article). Once you’ve experienced improvement in your lower back discomfort by implementing the Quadruped Mobility Flow I laid out, it’s now time to take the next step- which is adding in MUSCLE ACTIVATION sequences to your routine.

The perfect storm for any joint pain is tight and weak muscles. This phenomenon is particularly true with the lower back. If your glutes are tight and weak (which is often the case), combined with tight and weak upper back muscles, then you’re a sure-fire candidate to have chronic pain in the lumbar spine region.

Even though I’m about to lay out an activation sequence, it is absolutely imperative to never lose sight of the importance of mobility in conjunction with muscle activation. These sequences will certainly activate muscles surrounding your lower back that are dormant, however, you must keep your hips and thoracic spine mobile in order to continue dissipating your back discomfort.   

How Can I Activate Dormant Muscles?

Mini-bands have become more common place in gyms across the country in recent years. However, I question whether individuals realize the true value in using a band. Performing mini-band exercises is not going to build muscle or vastly increase strength numbers in your squats, deadlifts or bench presses. They will not magically melt fat off your body just because your heart is pounding during the set. What mini-band use is going to do though is bulletproof your body by activating underutilized muscles.

Using bands will allow you to specifically target muscles that traditional resistance training (with free weights or cables) fail to activate. The key to proper mini-band use is: leave your ego at the door. Keep in mind, this is about muscle activation, so the tension should not be a competition with anyone else except yourself. If you have extremely under-active muscles in your glutes and upper back, a tighter band will merely result in movement compensation, instead of proper muscle activation.

We live in a more is better society, that has been highlighted by various fads in the fitness industry that unfortunately create a “keeping up with the Jones’ ” mentality. I can unequivocally say though that more is NOT better when we’re dealing with improving back discomfort. Therefore, it is imperative to choose a band with the proper tension FOR YOU that allows activation solely in the muscles that should be getting activated. In other words- if any of the exercise combinations I lay out below cause any discomfort in the lumbar spine, it is almost certainly not a question of form or exercise selection- it is a matter of needing to reduce the tension, and after a certain point potentially reducing the volume as well…therefore, I’ll say it one more time- if you want long term lower back health, leave your ego at the door when activating your muscles with a mini-band!

Why Do the Glutes & Upper Back Impact Lower Back Health?

The Glute musculature (glute maximus, medius and minimus) are directly responsible for hip extension and hip abduction. It’s most important function as it relates to lower back health though is it assists in the support and stabilization of the lumbar spine. Basically when the glutes are extremely under-active – which is EXTREMELY common based on the amount of sitting we do- activities that would normally be loaded through your butt go right to your lower back. The perfect example of this is when an individual feels lower back pain while squatting. A squat of any kind should load up the quads and glutes, and if the glutes aren’t firing properly, the compression of the squat will undoubtedly flare up the lower back.

Activating muscles in the upper back is equally important to improving long term lower back health as well. When an individual has poor posture from prolonged periods of sitting at a desk or being on a technological device, they not only have tight muscles surrounding their thoracic; they also have weak muscles in the rear delts, rhomboids, scapular and lats.

Weak muscles in the upper back makes it difficult for individuals maintain proper posture- thus keeping pressure on your lower back constantly. The more we can activate the small muscles behind your shoulders, the easier it’ll be over time to maintain proper posture. Until you mobilize and strengthen the muscles surrounding the thoracic spine though, it’ll be extremely difficult to achieve consistently good posture.

The Exercises

Lower Body

Mini-band Foot Fire

Get completely loaded up on the leg you’re not moving. There should be about a quarter of a knee bend to create some tension in that quad as well. Then you begin to move your active leg outside shoulder width then back to the mid-line of your body, as fast as you can. The key here is not letting the feet touch together. When the feet touch together, you lose tension and you’re not getting nearly the quality of the work in.

Mini-band Lateral Walks

When you perform lateral walks, you want to push your hips back and stay as low as you can while still being able to move laterally. The quality of this move again has to do with keeping tension on your glutes and quads by not allowing the feet to touch on each step. Your lead foot should be able to step outside shoulder width, then your back-side foot should again only come to about your mid-line to ensure tension stays constant on that band.

Mini-band Monster Walks

Stay wide and low, sinking the hips again like you’re trying to sit down. The steps (both forwards and backwards) should be short and choppy, but not necessarily fast. By keeping the steps short with your toes straight ahead, the hips will remain square, thus maintaining tension in your glutes and quads.

Mini-band Diagonal Walks

This move puts lateral walks and monster walks together into a hybrid exercise. Once again you want to stay as low as possible, click the heels and step “up and out” as aggressively as you can. The same applies to when you go backwards, except you’re thinking “back and out.” Be sure to try to keep your toe straight ahead on these as well.

The Sequence

For Lower Body, perform the set as follows:

  • Mini-Band Foot Fire (Left foot moves) – 10 seconds
  • Lateral Walks (Left foot Leads)- 10 steps
  • Mini-Band Foot Fire (Right foot moves)- 10 seconds
  • Lateral Walks (Right foot leads)- 10 steps
  • Monster Walks- 10 steps up & 10 steps back
  • Diagonal Walks- 10 steps up & 10 steps back

*Perform for 2-4 rounds depending on what your training goals are and whether this is an extension of the warm up or the workout itself. Start with 10-20 seconds rest in between moves (especially if you start feeling tightness in your lower back), but work towards zero rest in between exercises. Always rest for about 30-45 seconds between rounds. For best results perform this sequence minimally 3 times per week.

Upper Body

In Fronts/Behinds

Start with your hands about shoulder-width on the band, at hip level. Then proceed to move the band from your hips to your butt, pulling the band apart as you come over top your head. This shouldn’t be impossible, but it shouldn’t be easy either. Find the hand position where you can just keep your arms straight through the entire range of motion. If done on a consistent basis, this move serves a dual purpose of both mobilizing the thoracic spine, and activating the muscles around it.

Band Pull Aparts

Start with your hands about shoulder width and bring the band to chest level. Stay at chest level the entire set, and open the arms (keeping them nice and straight) bringing the band to your chest. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and make sure you’re not arching your low back (Think abs down). Roll the shoulders all the way forward and knock the knuckles together in order to work through a full range of motion.

Touchdowns

Put a mini-band either around your wrists or palms (palms being more difficult) and begin with your hands about shoulder-width at hip level. From there raise your arms into a full front raise over top your shoulders, pulling your hands wide at the top- like a football referee making a touchdown sign. Then, return your arms to the starting position, never letting your hands get closer than shoulder width- keeping tension on all the muscles surrounding the shoulders. Similar to the “In Fronts/Behinds,” this move serves a dual purpose of activation and mobilization. **Tip: If you struggle with keeping your lower back from arching, perform these with your low back pressed to a wall.

The Sequence

For Upper Body perform the set as follows:

  • In Fronts & Behinds- 10 reps each
  • Pull Aparts- 10 reps
  • Touchdowns- 10 reps (slow and steady tempo)

*Similarly, perform 2-4 rounds based on your goals and workout days. You can even perform this sequence as a super-set with your lower body work, and basically bounce back and forth between the 2 with no actual rest in between. To start though, give yourself the same 10-20 second rest in between exercises- only if needed. Then work towards no rest at all. Same as the lower body, for best results perform this sequence minimally 3 times per week.

**To make both sequences more challenging, increase the reps BEFORE the tension. Once you’ve got to 15 for every exercise- using perfect form and without feeling any negative pain in the back- then it’s time to increase the tension of the band. Be sure to not jump right from 10 to 15 reps either. Do it incrementally by inserting 12, 13, and/or 14 rep sequences in between.

Final Thoughts

In a perfect world, we’d show up to the gym, hit a dynamic warm-up followed by my hip-mobility flow, then this activation series, then we’d jump into strength work. Using this template to create your workouts will yield improvements in lower back pain. Remember to never lose sight of the importance of mobilization and activation together.

Once the back starts feeling good, sometimes we lose sight of what got us feeling good in the first place. If you stop the mobility work, combined with the activation of your glutes and upper back, it’s only a matter of time before you’re right back at square 1. Sacrifice time spent on the gym floor doing exercises that are probably doing you more harm than good anyway, for more time spent in a corner with a yoga mat doing your mobility and activation work before your strength work.

It’s not sexy. It’s not going to break the internet with likes on social media. BUT IT WORKS- if done consistently. I greatly encourage you to fully commit to healing your lower back, and follow the mobility and activation flow I’ve laid out. Put your blinders on and ignore whatever else is going on in the gym, and turn your sole attention to YOU.

Yours in Fitness and Health,

TC

Your Final Reward Will Be Heartache and Tears, If You’ve Cheated the Guy in the Glass. 

One thought on “Activate Dormant Muscles to Bulletproof Your Lower Back

  1. This is why I started with yellow to green to blue and came back to yellow. I realized I shouldn’t be hurting with higher tension. Using the yellow, I still feel my muscles working without killing myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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