On Your Heels

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It can silently creep up on you without warning, over a period of years. Musculoskeletal imbalances develop in everyday life, from things as simple as being right-handed or left-handed, and the body simply absorbs the information it receives and compensates for those imbalances in its own way until one day you wake up realizing you have a protruding belly, no butt and one heck of a sore lower back.

That’s what lower-crossed syndrome — also known as pelvic crossed syndrome, or PCS — looks like in action. In reality, it’s a combination of weak gluteal and abdominal muscles, paired with tight spinal erectors and hip flexors. In addition to that unsightly belly pooch, there’s only one eventual outcome if you leave the condition untreated: pain.

Because lower-crossed syndrome results in part from shortened hip flexors — prevalent in Western culture, where we spend so much time sitting on our weakened glutes and sciatic nerves in front of computers — the simple acts of lifting and walking will be aided by the lower-back muscles much more than they should be. That extra stress on the lumbar region can eventually produce chronic pain, bone degeneration and even disc herniation. And if you’re a woman, your chances of developing this condition are pretty high, especially if you’re given to wearing pretty high heels.

“Women learn culturally to have a bad loading pattern,” explains Robb Rogers, director of the Human Performance Center at the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colo. “If you need to pick something up off the floor and you’re wearing a skirt, you’d do it a certain way for a lot of reasons — bend the knees first and sit straight down. But that’s not how you should do it. It shortens your gastrocnemius [calf muscle] and enhances your pelvic tilt.”

Combine that with sitting all day and the fact that women need to retrain and strengthen their pelvic floor muscles after childbirth, and it’s easy to see why men have an easier time dodging this cross. Fortunately, some simple stretches and exercises can help correct the condition before it stabs you in the back.

  • The 90/90. Lying on your back on the floor, raise your knees in a straight line above your hips, bend them 90 degrees and place a small medicine ball between them. Try to raise your hips while squeezing the ball.
  • Kettlebell swings. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and grasp a kettlebell in one or both hands between your legs. Keeping your back straight and abs tight, use your glutes to power your hips forward, popping the weight up and away from your body. This is a very small range of motion, and though it might appear to be an arm and shoulder exercise, those muscle groups are only along for the ride — you should feel it in your glutes, abs and hip flexors. Try a mixture of one-handed, two-handed and catch-and-release switches for variety.
  • Medicine-ball swings. A small medicine ball with handles can be used in place of a kettlebell. With this move, the swing will take place on the outside of your leg instead of between your knees.
  • Resisted wall sits. With your back against a wall and a small medicine ball between your knees, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor and hold your arms out in front of you, palms together. Resist the pressure as a partner pushes on your hands from the left, right, top and bottom.

“Those are all [great] corrective exercises,” Rogers says. Try adding three to four sets of 15-20 reps of each exercise a couple of times a week, whenever you do ab and core work.