Sitting and Low Back Stiffness


Americans sit a lot. We sit at breakfast, we sit at the office, we sit for lunch, we sit in our cars. We sit for hours, barely moving. This marathon of daily sitting leads to lower back pain.

For athletes that spend their workday sitting at a desk, midline stability and flexibility should be at the forefront of their mind. Sitting in a flexed, immobile position for extended periods of time essentially reduces overall mobility of the hips and posterior chain. This can lead to lower back stiffness, and potentially more serious issues.

Spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill, of the University of Waterloo, says sitting puts nearly twice the stress on the spine as standing; and slouching while you sit increases the pressure even more. That’s because hunching forward pushes the back into a convex or C shape. Slouching fatigues and overstretches the ligaments, causing back pain.

When people feel “stiffness” in their lower backs they logically assume the best way to reduce this feeling is to stretch the low back. When we sit, the hamstring muscles and illiopsoas muscles are shortened, and this leads to reduced mobility of the hips. In reality, a lack of hip mobility is one of the main reasons for this sensation.

There are several ways we can combat this issue: The first is to increase core stability and strength. Next, we need to increase flexibility and mobility of the supporting musculature (hips and posterior chain). And last, is sitting properly.

Dr. Stuart McGill, recommends maintaining lordosis most of the time while sitting—i.e., maintaining an active lower back and core with proper curvature of the spine (no slouching). His research has shown that this is preferred over a flexed spine for reducing low back issues.(1)

Lower back pain can be irritating, but it can be treated. If you sit for long periods, here are some recommendations you can use to help alleviate low back stiffness:

  • Take breaks from prolonged sitting
  • Get up and move around as often as possible
  • Develop a stretching routine that targets the hips and posterior chain
  • Strengthen your core and lower back
  • Warm-up properly before exercise

We’ve come to view sitting as a natural part of our daily lives, but it is clear to see the affects prolonged sitting can have on our mobility and health. As athletes, core and lower back health is paramount to our progress.

Being mobile and pain free is the goal. So whether sitting or standing, take care of your lower back and your lower back will take care of you.

  1. McGill SM, Brown S. Creep response of the lumbar spine to prolonged full flexion. Clinical Biomechanics. 1992; 7: 43-46.