Back Pain: Causes & Solutions

By Fire+Ice CrossFit west Head Coach, Marcel Mandagaran

One of the most common issues during exercise is back pain, which can be caused by a wide range of circumstances but is most often blamed on the exercise itself. They mistake the exercise for being too difficult and tend to avoid exercise altogether. Way. Wrong. Answer. I want to explain what’s happening, usually, when people (especially new to fitness) are experiencing a little bit of pain during exercise.

Many people may experience many different pains during exercise (knee, shoulder, wrist etc…) and mistake it for the assumption of exercise is not for them. Then it’s a trip to the doctor for an expert’s opinion and what does Doc say? “You should probably take some time off from the gym”.

The great fundamental about CrossFit is that we use Functional Movements. Picking up objects, squatting down, pressing overhead, running, jumping etc. These are all movements that us as human beings do in our everyday life. The problem is, in this day and age, we don’t really DO all those things that often. A normal day for the average American, involves 8+ hours of sitting in very poor positions. And that my friends, is the real culprit. My friend Kelly Starret said it best, “Sitting is the new smoking.”

So, what is so bad about sitting you ask. Well, we have many layers of tissues and those tissues are supposed to slide and glide, smoothly. When we sit those tissues start getting glued together creating this cast like tissue, that is NOT supple. Hip flexors shorten from the 90-degree angle of sitting, calves, shins and heel cords, even the bottom of our feet grow extremely stiff from the 90-degree angle of being planted on the floor and not moving. Shoulders round forward, creating a spinal fault and create a horribly flexed thoracic spine. If you type a lot, I bet you have wrist and elbow pain. Look at what degree those elbows are in……90 degrees.

The funny and great thing about CrossFit, is that it will most always find all the deficiencies in the body starting with the biggest ones. Example, your back.  It feels tight or is in pain because the hip flexors are extremely tight and shortened from sitting all day. The hip flexors tie right into the spine. So, the spine has been under tension all day long and now when you put a little stress on it, (working out) it gets very angry with you.

So, instead of looking at it like “I must be doing something wrong”, CrossFit is really just pointing out what areas of your body need some TLC. And yes, you still need to take it easy until the issue has been fixed. Use light weight and move correctly. But, DO NOT stop moving. Ironically, the problem will actually get worse or take a lot longer to heal if you cease all movement altogether. Exercise will send fresh blood to the affected area and restore some of the slide and glide that should be taking place.  We were meant to move, not sit all day long

I know, everyone can’t just up and leave their day jobs, so here are some tips to help fix those deficiencies.

When at all possible:

  1. avoid sitting
  2. Ask for a standing desk, or make your own. Its easy stack up some boxes or books and set your computer on top
  3. If you commute and have to sit all day, every hour, try to stand and do a quick hip flexor stretch (only takes 4 min)
  4. Always be aware of good posture. Even while sitting, sit in the best position possible. Shoulders pulled back and down, abs about 20% engaged, chest tall and spine neutral.

Now that we have you in better positions, you’re going have to show those stiff tissues some love. It’s going to be a little painful at first and you’re going to have to make some time for this, but it will be well worth it when you are not in pain all the time. Buy yourself some mobility tools (Foam roller and lacrosse ball. A 2” PVC pipe and a baseball will work just fine.) You will be “mashing” up the tissue, trying to restore the slide and glide effect. Its basically a self-serviced deep tissue massage– you’re welcome.

Aim for a solid 10 minutes a day, because just like we sit for hours at a time every day, we must stay on top of that tissue maintenance.  Doing it just once does NOT magically zap the problem, you must make it a daily/nightly ritual. I recommend right before bed, it will help you sleep better and we all know from previous blogs you heal while sleeping. Start with the most severe areas. Once you have cleaned up those areas move on to the next.

I highly recommend, following the mobility guru Kelly Starrett. You can find him on all social media platforms, YouTube, and podcast. He also has some wonderful books, which I have posted below. He believes you can fix pretty much all joint and muscle pain on our own. No Doctors necessary. I have been following his practices for quite some time now and I am a firm believer in his methods as they have helped me tremendously.



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