You may not be familiar with the term quadratus lumborum, but this muscle affects your movement and is often a source of back pain.
The quadratus lumborum muscle, or QL for short, is the deepest abdominal muscle in your lower back on both sides of your spine. The muscle runs from your pelvis to your lowest rib, but it is commonly referred to as the low back.
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The QL has an important job: It stabilizes movement of the spine and pelvis, and is responsible for lateral spine flexion. In other words, it’s vital to movement. It also supports the core when you breathe, says Aaptiv Trainer Rochelle Moncourtois.
Since the QL plays a vital role in our bodies, it’s important to make sure that it doesn’t get tight and cause pain. So, how do you stretch your QL and take care of your lower back? Moncourtois shares her tips.
What causes QL pain, and what does it feel like?
If you’ve felt back pain, you’re not alone: 31 million Americans experience low back pain at any given time, according to the American Chiropractic Association. And, while it’s likely that you’ll notice back pain right away, it can be hard to pinpoint its cause.
If your pain is in the lower back region and feels like a deep ache, it’s likely your QL. A tight QL can also be described as sharp pain, depending on its severity and cause. QL pain is often felt even when resting, but movement may make it worse and interfere with your ability to do things like walking. A good test to see if your back pain is due to a tight QL is when you sneeze or cough. If these physical reactions cause you to feel more low back pain, your QL is likely upset.
The bad news is that back pain is painful and can hinder workouts, but the good news is that QL tightness is very common and can be fixed, Moncourtois says. In fact, there are some common pain culprits.
“Pain in the QL…is due to stress, overuse, overtraining, and straining the muscle,” Moncourtois informs. “Usually the pain comes in the form of stiffness, and overtime, it can cause low blood flow to that area or surroundings muscles.”
Moncourtois says that any exercises that involve twisting and bending can aggravate the QL if not careful. Improper form when weight lifting can affect the lower back, too, and cause serious muscle soreness. (This is why it’s important to watch your exercise form.)
Everyday activities like sitting for too long can also lead to back pain, as can poor posture. Lastly, if you have weak back muscles, your QL may be compensating; that can lead to serious soreness.
How do you stretch out your QL?
OK, so you have lower back pain, now what? The best way to alleviate a tight QL is by stretching the muscle, Moncourtois advises.
“Stretching is important because the QL mainly helps with your posture—which you need for proper exercises movements,” Moncourtois says. “The stretching [also] helps prevent any tightness that may cause injury while performing an exercise.”
Lean Side to Side
Moncourtois says that one of the best stretches for a tight QL is simply leaning side to side while standing. While gently leaning over on one side of the body, feel your muscles work to stabilize you. This stretch can be done with one hand over your head, or with arms at your side. It’s important to note the difference between a stretch and pain, and stop when you’re suffering; you don’t want to further hurt yourself.
Another stretch Moncourtois recommends is child’s pose. One of yoga’s most popular positions, child’s pose is great for the back. Yoga, in general, benefits our bodies, as a 2015 study found that it can help reduce back pain, and may even improve the psychological symptoms associated with pain.
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Knee to Chest Stretch
Other go-to stretches Moncourtois suggests are knee to chest, and lateral pelvic tilt exercises. Knee to chest stretches can be done lying flat on your back, pulling one knee into the body with both hands while keeping the other leg extended. Lateral pelvic tilt exercises, on the other hand, come in a variety of forms. These include reverse leg raises and clamshells.
Reverse Leg Raises
Reverse leg raises can be done standing up or lying flat on your chest on the ground. If you’re standing, slowly, with control, lift one leg behind you while balancing on your standing leg. This strengthens your glutes and back muscles. If lying face down on the ground, you will also take turns lifting and lowering legs behind you.
Clamshells are done on your side, and are a popular exercise for building glute strength and improving hip mobility. Lying on one side, bend your knees in a 90 degree angle, hips stacked. Rest your head on your lying arm and slowly lift your top knee open, keeping your feet together. Lower with control. Make sure to do clamshells on both sides of the body, and avoid rotating your spine. The goal with this exercise is control.
Eagle Side Twists
Lastly, Moncourtois says that eagle side twists are great for your QL. “Start [by] lying on your back,” she says. “Then cross your legs into eagle pose and rotate the top thigh to the opposite side of your mat into a supine twist, [then] hold.”
How can you prevent lower back pain?
On top of stretching, building strong back muscles helps prevent pain. Side planks are fantastic for strengthening your QL, but be sure to do them on both sides to keep things equal. Working on correcting weight lifting form is another huge factor, as is listening to your body and only lifting what you can safely (sometimes pushing yourself at the gym is not worth it.)
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There’s some lifestyle factors that can protect your QL, too. These include avoiding sitting for long periods, maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle, lifting heavy objects by bending at the knees—not waist—and practicing good posture.
Back pain happens to the best of us, but there are certain things that we can do to reduce the risk of suffering. We want to ensure that we not only treat QL pain, but also that we continually work on our back muscles.
So, next time that you’re at the gym wrapping up a workout, don’t skip out on stretching your back. Your future self will stand up proud and thank you.