Are your quadriceps muscles tight? If they are (as they tend to be in most people), they may be creating a chronic posture problem that includes pain related to tight lower back muscles. Overly tight quadriceps muscles may alter the placement of your pelvis by pulling on it. They may also (indirectly) result in weak hamstring muscles, the muscles located at the back of your thigh. All of this affects your pelvic alignment, which is an important key to a pain-free lower back.
Here’s what happens:
The quadriceps muscles are the big, bulky muscles located at the front of your thigh. Like the hamstrings at the back of your thigh, the quadriceps are known as "2 joint muscles." In other words, they attach at the hip and they attach near the knee. In this way, their work not only influences the individual joints to which they attach –- the hip and the knee –- but also regionally by means of a phenomenon that kinesiologists call the kinetic chain. The kinetic chain refers to the way in which the movement of one part of the body affects other areas of the body. The idea of the kinetic chain plays out in a lot of ways, but two spine related examples are described below:
Tight Quads Pull the Pelvis Down
The quadriceps attach on your hip bones, at a place technically known as the anterior superior iliac spine, or ASIS for short. Keep things simple by thinking of your ASIS as the front part of your hip bone. For your reference, the ASIS is a place you can actually touch.
When the quads get really tight, they pull on the hip bone, which in turn pulls on the whole pelvis. This pulling tends to tilt the pelvis downward, or forward, into a position technically called anterior tilt of the pelvis.
Because the spine wedges in between the two hip bones in back of the pelvis, as the pelvis is brought into a forward tilt by your tight quads, your lumbar spine goes with it. This tends to increase the arch in your lower back. An increased lower back arch, technically called excessive lordosis, is often accompanied by very tight (and painful) back muscles.
Tight quadriceps muscle also may result in weak or overstretched hamstring muscles.
Tight Quads Over Power Hamstrings
At the hip, the hamstring muscles attach on your sitting bones, those small bones you can feel when you spend a lot of time in your chair. In other words, sitting bones are located on the underside of your pelvis. If you have good postural alignment in general, most likely there is enough tone in your hamstrings at any given time to pull your pelvis down a bit in back. This is a good thing, and it contributes to lower back health.
But much of this back-protecting muscle tone can be lost if your quadriceps are tight. This is because as the pelvis is pulled down in front, there is a corresponding lift up in back, near where the sitting bones are. This puts the hamstring "on a stretch," as therapists like to say. If you stay like this over time, the hamstrings lose their ability to support your ideal pelvic and spinal positions.
Unfortunately, because of our sedentary culture, most of us have tight quadriceps. This is due mainly to the fact that sitting puts you in a position where your quadriceps are in near constant contraction. The more time you spend sitting, the more the quadriceps shorten and tighten, and the greater the chance of chronic muscle tension in your lower back muscles.
How Do You Know When The Quadriceps Are Tight?
Going to your doctor and/or physical therapist for a posture evaluation is perhaps the most accurate and reliable way to determine how tight your quadriceps muscles are.
Alternatively, you can do some basic screening tests on yourself as follows:
Try standing up and push your hips forward. (Push from your sitting bones in order to target the correct location.) How far forward can you go and what does that feel like? If you have pain and/or limitation, you may have tight quadriceps.
Here is another test if you are able to assume a lunge position where one leg is forward (and bent) in front of the other, and the back leg is straight. If you can get into this position, ask yourself the same question. What does it feel like at the front of your hip of the back leg?
If you do yoga, yet another way to tell if your quads are too tight is to reflect on your camel pose. The camel pose is the one where you begin from a kneeling position, and depending on your level of ability (and flexibility), you arch back, with the ultimate goal of grasping your ankles behind you with your hands. (Be sure to modify the pose to accommodate any back or neck pain you may have.) The camel pose puts the quads on a stretch. So if you need to prop up and modify the pose a lot in order to tolerate the pain, chances are your quadriceps are tight.
Finally, if you can easily touch your toes while bending at your hip joints (and not your lower back), this is another possible sign that your quads may be too tight.
What to Do About Tight Quadriceps
The fix for chronically tight quad muscles is certainly simple enough -- stretch them! Here are some quad stretches to get you started:
- How to Stretch Your Quads - This is a beginner's version of a standing quadriceps stretch
- Side Lying Quadriceps Stretch - from Paige Waehner, About.com's Exercise Guide
- Do the Side Lying Quadriceps Stretch the Pilates Way - from Marguerite Ogle, About.com's Guide to Pilates