Bend at the hips, not the knees, and definitely not the back

Do you ever get low back pain? And can you do this?

My guess is that if you do get low back pain, you probably can’t hip hinge. As I note in the video – be strict with your form. If you can’t feel whether the dowel (or broom handle, just something very light and straight) is coming off your butt or if your head is moving from it, or if your upper back is arching away from it, then get someone to watch you, video yourself, or use a mirror. This is one of the few times I want you to be critical of yourself. If you can’t bend over to the point where your back is almost parallel with the floor while keeping the dowel touching those 3 points, then that’s a problem. Because really what it means is that when you bend over doing normal daily activities, you’re probably bending in your low back. And for many people, doing that hundreds or thousands of time (365 days per year – how many times a day and how many years – it multiplies up!) is a big problem for their back.

If I’m wrong – if you can hip hinge well and you have low back pain – please comment below as I’ll be very interested to talk with you.

I’m in no way trying to suggest that this is the magic pill for low back pain. What I AM saying is that bending at the hips instead of the back tends to reduce the amount of extra strain on your back, which usually makes your back happier.

What about those doctors who say to bend at the knees instead of the back? If you could see me now, you’d see that I’m shaking my head. Bending at the knees instead of the back is a great way to develop knee pain. It’s also impractical. Think about it – if you are bending to reach something that’s low and in front of you, how will bending at the knees get you there? When bending at the knees, you go straight down. So it’s practical for something you’re picking up at your feet, but if it’s something in front of you, not so much. And even with the item directly below you, if you don’t have phenomenal ankle and hip mobility and a very stable core, it’s not going to work well, because your heels will come off the floor which will shift your knees foreward, and your back will round. Not a great position for most people. Bending at the hips on the other hand – that’s gold! Look how big your hip muscles are! Yes I am saying you have a big butt. At least in comparison to your knees. Those hip muscles were built for bending, so use them.

Work on the two-legged hip hinge above if you can’t do it, and think about incorporating that into your daily life. Pay attention to even the little things, like brushing your teeth: I bet when you lean forward to spit, you bend at the low back. Try bending at the hips instead: it gets you to the same place but your back will prefer it.

Once you get to the bottom of the two-legged hip hinge, start to bend your knees, and you’ll open up a whole world of heavy lifting potential that is much safer for your back. Some of you recognize that what I just described is actually a deadlift. Sure is! And what a great exercise. Head over to this post if you want some guidance on what a good and a bad deadlift looks like. Please do keep in mind that using great form is not a free ticket to lift stuff that’s too heavy for you – common sense is still your good friend. Don’t alienate her.

There are some scenarios where a one-legged hip hinge is a better option for picking stuff up. In the gym we refer to this as a single leg Romanian deadlift, and those of you who have great trainers are saying “hey, I do that in my workout”. Yes, if your trainer has you doing single leg Romanian deadlifts (or SL RDLs) and is vigilant about working on your form, it’s probably a fair assumption that he or she is a good trainer. Unless you look like a weeping willow while doing your SL RDL – that’s a pretty sure sign you don’t have a good trainer.

Here’s a video of the single leg RDL.

What’s that it looks like the bird drinking the water?

Bird drinking water RDL

That’s the one we use at Custom Strength to reinforce what I mean when I say a hip hinge. One of my clients was asking if I had a top hat for them to wear. Think I may go buy one to see if it improves their ability to hip hinge. Anyone know where to find a top hat in Ottawa?

If you’re looking for some more exercise and movement ideas for someone who has low back problems, you may be interested in this article, “6 Exercises for Low Back Health“. Just please note this point near the top of that post:

“If daily living causes you low back pain, I strongly suggest that you look to a health care practitioner as your primary source of guidance for your back health. I won’t suggest what type of professional you see, just that someone who is a doctor, osteopath, physical therapist, chiropractor, athletic therapist, or massage therapist sees and hopefully provides some treatment for your back.”

 

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is the owner and one of the personal trainers at Custom Strength in Ottawa. If you’re in Ottawa and you are thinking ‘I could really use a trainer who thinks like this’, you’re in luck – we’ve got a summer special promotion at the moment.

8 thoughts on “Bend at the hips, not the knees, and definitely not the back”

  1. Great article, I’ll definitely be trying that when I get home. I’ve read that hip pain is often associated with other problems and pains such as lower back pain. Hopefully learning how to move my body properly will help me rid this annoyance.

  2. Hi Zach, Good question, and I would say it’s really two questions? Or maybe I misunderstand you. Do you mean how do I stop people hinging by rounding their backs instead of using their hips? If not, can you clarify for me? Just want to make sure I understand so I can get you my favourite approach.

  3. What do you do to get a client to stop hinging with their hamstrings/paraspinals and get into their core/glutes?

  4. Hey Ryan,

    sorry for the delayed reply. Sometimes it’s a question of retraining the pattern. I have a few exercises I use, including some hip hinge practice exercises as well as something called a “quadruped rockback”. I don’t think I have a video of that up – maybe google it and see if you find one? the TPI (Titleist performance institute) have an exercises for correcting pelvic tilt that is effective there too. Maybe search their site?

  5. How does one effectively train the hip hinge if one can’t disassociate lumbar flexion from hip flexion? I have very little hip flexion/extension and my lumbar spine activates almost immediately.

  6. Great points, and an example of why I want anyone with low back pain to also be seeing a health care provider like you vs just trying to train it away. When you see someone overusing paraspinals, do you find they tend to lose tspine contact? I’ve seen that on occasion. I think you point out something that I might not have been clear enough on in the article (and may go edit now): just because you can hip hinge well doesn’t mean you won’t have low back pain. In fact I have a few clients who are (were) terrible at the hip hinge but had no low back pain. It’s definitely not a universal correlation, just an observation that for many people, fixing a poor hip hinge improves their low back symptoms.

  7. I have seen some great hip hingers (I use this same dowel exercise/test consistently with patients) who are seeing me for low back pain. Just because they have it doesn’t mean they use it! I think there is also a tendency to use paraspinals and hamstrings through this movement (vs core and glutes), which may improperly load the spine.
    Great article Elsbeth!

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