The lower back is one of the most common injury sites in hockey (Barboza et al., 2018; Dick et al., 2007; Murtaugh, 2009).
The low positions and repeated forward flexions performed in hockey mean that the lumbar spine experiences a great deal of stress. As you will find yourself in half-rotated positions on a regular basis, and perform frequent lunges and tackles in low shapes, you are putting certain tissues and joints under more load.
Studies have shown that up to 53% of hockey players report some degree of lower back pain (Reilly and Heaton, 1990). Other research has found equivalent rates of lower back pain when compared with other sports, but even still, over half of respondents reported this problem (Haydt et al., 2012).
Clearly, this is a problem in the hockey world and one that many players are experiencing.
Before continuing, please always seek out medical guidance if you are experiencing ongoing pain. This is not individual advice, and if you are worried please seek out a qualified professional for diagnosis.
How can I improve my lower back pain?
Research suggests that there are 3 main areas to focus on when seeking to improve lower back pain in hockey players:
1) Improve lumbosacral and hip joint range of motion
2) Increase trunk strength and capacity
3) Strengthen the posterior chain including the glutes
Improve lumbosacral and hip joint range of motion
Female hockey players experiencing lower back pain have been found to have between 18-24 degrees less total lumbosacral (lower back/pelvis) range of motion than pain-free and control group athletes (Fenety and Kumar, 1992). This would suggest a link between how much range we can cope with and the incidence of back pain.
It’s important to note that some of this research was completed a while ago, and the game of hockey has moved on significantly since. However, the principle remains the same - improved mobility can have a positive effect on the incidence of lower back pain in hockey players.
More recent studies have highlighted that reduced hip abduction scores were evident in hockey players with a history of lower back pain (Kennedy, 2014). Therefore those players who had previously experienced lower back pain had poorer scores in range of motion at the hip.
This makes a lot of sense, as the less range of motion you are able to achieve, the more stress you will experience per unit of tissue cross-sectional area. In layman's terms, the more range you can achieve the more you can dissipate stress over a larger area. This means less repeated loading on the areas of the body most at risk.
Therefore, mobility has been linked to improved lower back pain in hockey players.
Some great hip and lower back mobility exercises are as follows:
- Spiderman rotations
- Half kneeling hip flexor stretch
- Half kneeling adductor stretch
- Reverse lunge with rotation
- Lunge with rotation (palms up)
- Squat with rotation
- World’s greatest stretch
Increase trunk strength and capacity
Strength training around the muscles of the trunk is key. Muscles including the rectus abdominis and obliques help to ‘stiffen’ the spine, reducing the shear forces and the need for the lumbar muscles to perform additional work (Willard et al., 2012).
Peak eccentric trunk extension torque scores have been found to be weaker in hockey players experiencing lower back pain (Fenety and Kumar, 1992). In simple terms, the greater the forces that can be resisted in lower back extension, the lower the prevalence of lower back pain. A stronger trunk may therefore help to reduce this issue.
Some great exercises to strengthen the lateral trunk muscles (obliques/transverse abdominis) include:
- Side plank pulses
- Side plank rotations
- Lateral trunk holds
- Lateral trunk pulses
- Medicine ball rotations
- Side bends
Some great exercises to strengthen the anterior trunk muscles (rectus abdominis) include:
- Double leg lowers
- Plank extensions
- Dead bugs
- Supine trunk holds
- Single leg lowers
- Hollow holds
Aim to complete 150-300 reps of a combination of anterior and lateral trunk exercises as part of a circuit. This should take you around 7-12 minutes to complete.
Strengthen the posterior chain including the glutes
The final area to target when aiming to reduce lower back pain is to focus on strengthening the posterior chain. This is especially important around the glutes, which act as major force producers at the hip and prevent excessive lumbar muscle work in hip extension.
Exercises to strengthen the glutes include the following:
- Hip thrust variations
- Single leg squats in full hip flexion
- Romanian deadlift variations
- Single leg press
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