Arvind Ashok: Fitness & Nutrition Simplified

What’s really causing your back pain?

We don’t get much phys­i­cal activ­ity, we don’t use our bod­ies the way that we are meant to, we live too seden­tary a lifestyle. But you already know that, right! But did you know that one of the many side-effects of this is that per­sis­tent back pain that never quite goes away per­ma­nently! Let’s try and under­stand why this is. Sure, there could be lots of rea­sons but one of the pri­mary rea­sons is loss of hip mobil­ity. Well, what does that mean? It means we don’t use our hips enough. Our body has a bunch of joints, each with a pur­pose, and each designed to do some­thing. And we sim­ply do not do enough of this ‘some­thing’. Kinda like how machines rust when you don’t grease them, our body loses func­tion­al­ity. Our joints lose mobil­ity, our mus­cles lose flex­i­bil­ity, and so on.

The Over­ar­ch­ing Idea

Today, we will revisit an inter­est­ing the­ory that I’ve men­tioned ear­lier — the Joint by Joint Approach — by Coach Boyle and Gray Cook. Why would the hip not doing what it should do lead to back pain?

… the body is a just a stack of joints. Each joint or series of joints has a spe­cific func­tion and is prone to spe­cific, pre­dictable lev­els of dys­func­tion. As a result, each joint has spe­cific train­ing needs.

Let’s go from the bot­tom up, start­ing with the ankle. The ankle joint needs mobil­ity. The joint above that, the knee, is con­cerned with pro­vid­ing sta­bil­ity. Going above that, the hip, mobil­ity. The lum­bar spine on top of that, should be sta­ble. The t-spine above that — mobile. You get the idea. When one joint is ‘rusted’, it causes prob­lems to sur­face in the joint above it, or below it.

An inter­est­ing exam­ple that drove this point home for me was look­ing at the inci­dence of knee injuries in bas­ket­ball vs foot­ball (soc­cer). Think bas­ket­ball shoes — they have a high ankle sup­port. Bas­ket­ball play­ers are con­cerned about twist­ing their ankle, and so use shoes + tape to pre­vent the ankle from rolling over. But what  this does is it lim­its ankle mobil­ity. And causes prob­lem up the chain — coz it forces the knee to be more mobile than it should be. This act of com­pen­sa­tion by the knee results in a lot of seri­ous knee injuries in bas­ket­ball — a big price to pay for reduc­ing ankle injuries! In foot­ball, the cleats allow the ankle to main­tain it’s high range of motion — sure it could mean more ankle injuries. But hey, tear­ing your ACL is a lot less fun than twist­ing your ankle!

The same prin­ci­ple applies to the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion in this post. A loss of hip mobil­ity can result in either the knee try­ing to com­pen­sate, or in most cases, the lower back try­ing to com­pen­sate. Now, the lower back is built for sta­bil­ity i.e. it shouldn’t try to move too much. Its pur­pose is to keep the trunk sta­ble. But it ends up mov­ing more than it should (coz the hips dont move!) and that causes back pain that afflicts a whole lot of us. What do you do when your back hurts? Get a mas­sage, or put some spe­cial spray on it and get some tem­po­rary relief. But the prob­lem always comes back. That’s coz you are treat­ing the symptom.

The long-term fix is to get your hip mobile. And one of the surest ways to get your hip mobil­ity back is to learn to hinge!

How do you hinge

We need to learn to hinge with our hips. How do you start — sim­ple. Stand in front of a wall, and try to reach back and touch it with your butt. Keep your knees soft, and you should feel it in your ham­strings. For a more detailed look at the hinge, check out Dan John talk­ing about the hinge and assess­ing it.

Once you learn to hinge, you can move on to big­ger and brighter things like the dead­lift and the KB swing. They are built on using the hips to do the work — so if you feel your lower back when you do this, stop! You are doing it wrong, and you need to spend some time with a coach who knows what they are doing.

Raj demoing full extension of the hip

Raj demo­ing full exten­sion of the hip


Raj demo­ing the hinge — dead­lift­ing a KB, keep­ing a straight back and let­ting the hips do the work

And the KB swing is just another expres­sion of learn­ing to hinge, and using the hips to gen­er­ate the power. You can check out Raj demo­ing the swing. Watch as he hinges nice and deep, snaps his hip into full exten­sion (and does not hyper-extend), and the KB ‘mag­i­cally’ flies.


So, what can you do to kick things off?

If you aren’t train­ing at a good gym, for­get about the KB swing and the dead­lift. Try and repli­cate two things — keep a straight back, and try and move your butt back while not bend­ing the knees more. And work on your plank as well — coz the key to keep­ing your back sta­ble is learn­ing to keep your back sta­ble, in addi­tion to get­ting your hips mobile. Let’s get rid of that back pain!

While the hinge is not the only move­ment to get your hips mobile, it cer­tainly is one of the most impor­tant. So, learn it! If you guys are inter­ested, we will look at other meth­ods of improv­ing hip mobil­ity and crack­ing the back pain prob­lem. Let me know in the com­ments section!

Category: Exercise, Tips

  • Sun­deep

    Very insight­ful. I did see lot of improve­ment when I was fol­low­ing this method. Per­sis­tence is the key word in my case :)

  • arv43

    Good point — per­sis­tence is the key word for every­one. Most peo­ple get car­ried away and get ahead of themselves.

  • Tashi

    Will these also help some­one with hip pain but no back pain?

  • arv43

    Hi Tashi,
    Learn­ing to hinge, and learn­ing to squat could help with your hip pain, by improv­ing your mobil­ity. But a lot of things can cause hip pain — I would rec­om­mend vis­it­ing a physiotherapist.

  • Pra­van­jan

    Bril­liant read… I under­stand the hinge is impor­tant to strengthen the back mus­cles but should I be doing the hinge-squats/lifts while hav­ing a lower-back pain?

  • arv43

    Hey Pra­van­jan,
    If you have pain, do get it checked out. And you can try out the hinge and the squat, but do them unloaded, and spend time in learn­ing them before you try it out.