If, like me, you’ve been crippled by acute, long-lasting back pain, possibly shooting down your buttock, thigh, calf and/or foot, I have big news for you : you can, and will, get back to your normal life.
I did … Even though I thought I never would.
2 years ago, I was hit hard by a L5-S1 disc herniation and pinched nerve. It was the most intense, debilitating, long-lasting pain I’ve ever experienced.
For more than 3 months, the pain kept me from standing, sleeping, walking, working and even eating right.
I experienced the hopelessness and desperation that comes with being stuck in life with such overwhelming chronic suffering.
After weeks of begging, researching, and experimenting, I stumbled upon Foundation Training, a bodyweight exercise program that both saved and changed my life.
It was hard for me to believe that, after months of agonizing, life-wrenching pain, after trying all kinds of medications and treatments, simple isometric exercises would cure my back.
But it did. And for good.
Magic ? No. The program taught me how to correctly use my muscles and joints in everyday movements and postures.
I completely re-learned to lean, bend, reach, and lift, by using my core muscles instead of my spine.
Doing so addressed the real causes of my chronic pain (more about this). It also prevented it from happening again.
As early as one week after starting the exercises, I was already seeing a positive impact on my pain. And a few weeks later, I was getting back to my normal life.
Today, 2 years later, I can say I’m completely pain-free. And, I’m back to playing my favorite sports.
I believe everyone with chronic back pain should know about it. Dozens of chronic pain sufferers before me have experienced it successfully.
Yet, few in-depth reviews of the program are available as of this writing. So I’ve decided to create one. In this post, I will share my personal experience and knowledge of Foundation Training.
Disclaimer : I’m NOT a doctor, physical therapist, or medical-related professional – nor is anyone in my family. I’m just a 40-something guy who went through sciatica hell and fought back through research and experimentation. I just wish I’d known about Foundation Training sooner, e.g. before my disc slipped.
P.S : I can’t say for sure whether Foundation Training is for you, all I can say is it worked miracles for me. If you have, like I did, sciatica, disc herniation, bulged discs, pinched nerve, spinal stenosis, acute pain in butt / thigh / leg / heel – but no leg weakness or groin disorders – then you should look into it.
POST-RECOVERY UPDATE: in addition to the exercises I describe below, I’ve invested in an inversion table, which greatly complements the FT decompression movements, giving me a nice feeling of weightlessness and relieving the pressure on my back whenever I feel it again. I typically invert 10-20 minutes daily and no more than about 60º. After researching the table I chose is the Ironman Gravity with Airsoft ankle holders (Amazon link). Not the cheapest but it’s heavy duty, super comfortable, and the ankle holders are worth the difference, no strain on my feet and ankle.
For those new to disc problems, gravity compresses your spine and makes your vertebrae squeeze and eventually push out your degenerating disc. An inversion table lets you get into a reversed position with your head down, reducing spinal compression.
Part 1 : addressing the root cause
Typically, when we get into chronic pain, as a result of sciatica, slipped disc, disc degeneration, or whatever, we mainly address the symptoms.
So we take painkillers, anti-inflammatories, injections, ultrasounds, or even undertake surgery.
But what are the actual causes of our chronic pain ? What’s triggering these nasty injuries most of us go through at one point or another in life ?
According to Dr. Eric Goodman, creator of Foundation Training, in the majority of cases, bad postures and movement patterns, and the body imbalances they create, are the root cause of pain.
Now with all the talk about imbalances these days, I have to admit it was initially a fuzzy concept for me.
What do they mean by “imbalances” ? How do you fix that ? Is it a yin and yang kind of thing ?
The FT videos include a few short lectures that explain in a concrete way what these imbalances are.
Since I don’t know much about human anatomy and biomechanics, I initially skipped these videos and jumped straight to the exercises.
I found the first movements to be so immediately effective, however, that I got intrigued and went back to watch the lectures.
Based on what I ‘ve learned from the program, the following are the most common causes of chronics back pain :
Let’s look briefly at each of them.
Incorrect use of the posterior muscle chain
Most of us rely primarily on our skeletal system to execute daily life movements, such as pulling, lifting or bending.
Instead, we should execute these movements by hinging at the hips. This is the single most important principle I’ve learned in FT. More on that in Part 2 where we discuss some key exercises.
Hinging at the hips correctly puts the load of gravity force on our posterior muscle chain, which includes the large muscles around the hips, the glute (butt) muscles, the hamstrings, the adductors, and the lower back muscles.
If you don’t correctly engage your posterior chain, the burden of these movements falls upon your spine, which is a very bad thing.
Over time, your body compensates and adapts to these bad positions, which typically leads to imbalances and chronic pain.
Case in point :
As a regular stand up paddler, I used to stand on my board for hours on end with my spine bent forward while my arms and shoulders were pulling hard on that paddle. A perfect recipe for causing strain on my spine and pressure on my discs.
Trust me, you don’t need to be a stand up surfer to achieve this type of scary result. Bending forward, pulling or lifting something the wrong way will get you there just as fast !
Rotational imbalance of the hips
If you’re like most people, you may have externally rotated hips, with your hips, knees and feet turned outward apart from one another in a “duck stance”.
Constant sitting worsens this rotational pattern. When you sit for long periods, your pelvis opens up with your hips and thigh bones pushed outward. The pelvis also pushes forward in a tucked in position.
Over time this leads to the ball and socket parts of your hip joints misaligning, potentially creating friction and chronic hip issues.
Outward rotation also results in certain leg muscles shortening, potentially pressing on nerves and triggering sciatica and knee problems. Meanwhile, other leg muscles lengthen, creating other chronic issues.
Sitting is a modern life disaster. As Celia Storey puts it : “sitting compresses the spine, shrinks the chest, flattens the lumbar curve, tucks the pelvis and shortens hamstrings, sinks ribs into the waist.”
As an information worker, I’ve spent years sitting in front of a computer with my back most often slouched.
Over time, my posture has led to a weakened spine and strong hip imbalances, opening the way for disc bulges and sciatica.
Little did I know …
Internal rotation of the shoulders
Besides externally rotated hips, another very common imbalance identified by Dr. Goodman is internal rotation of the shoulders.
Your chest and shoulders are turned inward and pushed down, with the arms positioned in front of your body.
Here again, over time such bad posture can prevent your shoulder joints from functioning normally, as the parts that make up the joint are not correctly aligned.
The shoulders need to be rotated back out and lifted up (see Part 2).
So to recap, incorrect posture and movements are very often the root cause of chronic pain. It certainly was in my case.
FT claims 3 main culprits – bending at the spine, externally rotated hips, and internally rotated shoulders, are responsible for most imbalances, injuries, and chronic pain.
Next, let’s see how these issues can be solved so we can start getting rid of pain.
Part 2 : building blocks of Foundation Training
So as discussed earlier, Foundation Training educates our body on adopting good posture and good movement pattern, through simple bodyweight and isometric (static holds) exercises.
By following these exercises, we can self-correct these dangerous imbalances that often lead to chronic back pain.
In my case, not only did the exercises make my chronic pain go away, but they have kept it at bay ever since (of course I keep doing them on a regular basis).
The exercises revolve around three fundamental concepts :
You can tell from this list that these 3 principles are closely associated with the root causes we’ve identified.
I have been practicing Foundation Training for 2 years now, and so I have experienced these concepts and techniques first hand.
Let’s start with decompression breathing, which involves breathing wide and high to make space in our upper body.
Everyone has kind of heard breathing can play an important role in healing. If you want to see the breathing process in action, check out this cool short video.
In Foundation Training, breathing is a full blown exercise, not just a side thing. Being new to this, I’ve discovered that, through breathing, I can actually decompress my spine.
What counts is not the flow of air in and out, but the muscles involved in the process.
Decompression breathing involves expanding and elevating your rib cage up away from your hips. Doing this, you lengthen your back and reduce compression in your spine, increasing the distance between your vertebrae.
Remember, frequent spine flexion is a major cause of chronic back pain, as it leads to compression and subsequent injuries such as disc bulges and herniation.
So lengthening the back through upward and outward breathing really helps releasing that compression tension.
I breathe in deeply, focusing on filling my lungs with air, widening my ribcage and pushing it up as high as I can, and out as wide as possible.
Here’s the trick however : my chest needs to stay elevated even when I exhale even though the natural breathing pattern is for my rib cage to lower back down on expiring.
The only way to maintain my rib cage expanded and elevated on exhale is to tighten my abdomen muscles.
It comes naturally : if I just focus on keeping my chest up on exhale, I find myself automatically tightening my abs and lower back muscles, “pulling in my belly button”.
If you’ve been dealing with back pain treatments for a while, you may have heard the phrase “pull in your belly button” many times before.
Personally, I’d never tried it before, and I was wary at first because I felt activating those inner muscles might stir up the pain in my lower body.
After some cautious testing, however, I could verify it was safe for me to do. I was actually amazed by the amount of tension this creates in the core, feeling fatigue in some inner muscles I never knew existed.
Learning decompression breathing wasn’t easy at first. But with some practice with the videos, the exercise started to sink in and I ended up “sucking in my belly button” pretty deep.
Unlike the DVDs which include a single video specifically on breathing, the Core Elements version has a full activity, about 10 videos, dedicated to breathing and the related practice of anchoring (which I’ll discuss next).
UPDATE : FT has now moved to a subscription-based model so apparently the above link for getting the DVDs on their site no longer works. However, it seems the DVDs are still available on Amazon here (personally I prefer a one-time payment to a subscription).
In my post detailing my personal story, I mentioned that, 3 months into the pain from my disc herniation, I had purchased a pull-up bar to allow myself to hang for my spine to decompress.
Doing so had led to the very first subtle sign in months of my pain bottoming up. Guess what though ? I’ve found decompression breathing to be even more effective than hanging off a bar.
It works from the inside out by pushing out my chest through lung inflation, instead of just letting external gravity pull down my lower body.
That gives me full control over what’s happening. My core muscles are the ones doing the leg work, not gravity.
In addition, decompression breathing :
- can be done whenever, wherever, near whomever, standing or lying down
- doesn’t put a strain on my hands, arms and shoulders like hanging off a bar
- strongly engages my core muscles, over time strengthening my abs and lower back
I had always been quite skeptical about the effectiveness of internal static exercises such as breathing and inner core contracting. Foundation Training has proven me wrong on that one.
It took me some time to figure out what anchoring really was about – I actually worked through all of the videos in the initial Foundation Training DVDs without paying much attention to anchoring or understanding its real purpose.
Things have become much clearer after working my way through the Core Elements videos (UPDATE: no longer available on FT’s site, if you don’t want to buy a subscription, you can still get the DVDs through Amazon).
Anchoring is complementary to decompression breathing : while breathing makes you expand and push the torso up away from the hips, anchoring pulls your lower body downward, i.e. in the opposite direction.
Such pull in the lower body is obtained by contracting the muscles that run from our pelvis down to our feet.
An effective way to do it is to pull your feet towards each other while in standing position, like you’re trying to shrink the ground, but without actually letting your legs and knees move in.
This way, you generate strong tension on the inside face of your legs, calves and feet.
Another alternative is to push your feet outward as if trying to expand the ground, again without letting your feet and knees actually move apart. You can feel the tensioning in the external muscles of your hips and legs.
In both cases, the tension you create in your lower body acts as a downward anchoring force opposite the upward push from decompression breathing.
This opposition works to decompress your spine and stabilize your core muscles.
Decompression breathing with body anchoring, i.e. the videos in Activity 1 of Core Elements , greatly helps me release any tension in my spine and lower back. (UPDATE: DVDs on Amazon)
But sit tight – or should I say, stand tall – we’re just getting started,
If I had to pick a single takeaway I learned from the program, that would be hinging at the hips, aka using my hips as the primary hinge when moving my body.
As you know by now, Foundation Training’s central tenet is that chronic back pain often has its source in the way we get our spine to perform work our hips should be doing.
This means we shift the burden of the move onto our skeletal system instead of our muscle system.
Following my disc injury, I had to completely re-learn the correct movement patterns for “pulling, reaching, lifting, folding”. My patterns for executing these movements were flawed, and over time that’s what triggered my slipped disc.
In everyday life, you constantly need to lean forward, e.g. for grabbing something. Repeatedly bending at the spine means an eventual death sentence for your back.
I’ve realized that, since childhood, I have been immersed in erroneous fitness patterns involving spine bending, such as stretching by touching my feet, or doing crunches with my back rounded.
It all seemed to work just fine, until that fatal snap.
Since I started learning about all this, it really hurts me to see healthy people abusing their back like I used to – everyone from kids playing or working out, to people stretching before running, to professionals on their job – dentists, accountants, gardeners – bending in scary ways.
A bad back is a serious handicap in daily life. But here’s a bold statement : learning to hinge at the hips is the first step in permanently overcoming my handicap – I know because I’ve been there.
Hinging is Foundation Training’s most central and fundamental pattern. It goes hand in hand with decompression breathing. Almost all exercises and workouts include decompression and hinging.
The Founder is the primary exercise for learning hinging. In the Founder, you first start by decompressing your body through breathing and anchoring.
Once your spine is long, you push your hips backwards and you shift your weight into your heels to load your posterior muscle chain. You unlock your knees slightly.
Initially your arms are extended backwards. You then bring your arms forward, counterbalancing the backward shift in your hips.
The key to the exercise is to really shift your weight into your heels – I try lifting my toes up a bit to make sure – and your hips far enough back so your knees are positioned behind your heels.
The first time I tried to do the Founder, I was still feeling disturbing chronic pain in my buttock, thigh and leg. I had only recently recovered the ability to stand up straight (see my previous post for all the gory details of my disc herniation).
My condition allowed me to perform the decompression breathing, as well as gently shift my hips back with my arms extended backwards. However, I wasn’t capable of subsequently bringing my arms forward and up, as that triggered sharp pain in my leg.
So I initially settled for a “light” version of the Founder – there’s a video for it in the DVDs – using a chair in front of me to rest my hands on.
By offloading the burden of supporting my arms extended out in front of me, the tension in my posterior chain diminished, and hence the pain. That made the exercise feasible for me.
After a few days of training my posterior muscle chain in this manner, I graduated to being able to do the normal Founder (without a prop).
Hip hinges are incredible. They made me discover a whole new world of moving my body safely and with confidence – something I had completely lost after over 3 months of uninterrupted pain.
Even before bringing my arms forward, getting into the Founder gives me an intense stretch and activation of my hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and the other muscles all the way down to my calves and heels.
It feels like I’m stretching along the path of my sciatica nerve, which is a great soothing feeling.
The simultaneous decompression breathing further tensions my lower back muscles, as I contract my abdominal muscles to keep my rib cage elevated.
From this position, bringing my arms forward and lifting them waist high, then chest high, then diagonally above my head, increases the tension and stretching in my lower, mid, and upper back. My whole posterior chain is now stretched and braced.
When I was getting started, the more I did the exercise, the more confident I felt about it being safe. Doing it repeatedly over a few days already had an encouraging impact on my chronic pain.
Externally rotating the shoulders
As discussed in Part 1, internally rotated shoulders is another very common cause of imbalance potentially leading to chronic pain. Learning to correct this bad posture is essential.
As a kid, I often held my shoulders low and turned inward. I realized I’ve been holding this same shoulder posture as an adult, namely when sitting at work.
Having your shoulders turned inward limits the breathing space for your rib cage and creates potential misalignment and friction in the shoulder joint.
Holding the shoulders low also encourages the upper spine to slouch and the ribs to sink into the waist.
External rotation of the shoulders is one of the easier and more pleasant exercises for me. It starts by simply extending my arms backwards with my elbows and wrists slightly bent, opening and stretching the top of my chest as much as possible.
Then, I open my shoulders outwards, by rotating the palms of my hands toward the exterior, not just at the wrist but involving the whole arm.
When doing this exercise, I try to consciously open everything wide, from my fingers, palms, elbows, shoulders, to my upper chest.
Initially, I had a tendency to push my shoulder blades back together. That’s not a correct way to do it, the goal is to rotate out the shoulder joints. The best way I found to avoid this flaw is to maintain my elbows a couple inches away from my torso.
The videos in Activity 3, which covers shoulder imbalances, demonstrate doing quick sets of inward / outward rotations back and forth. These really helped me get the hang of the movement, feeling the stretch at the back of my shoulders and at the top of my chest.
Another key exercise for correcting internal rotation of the shoulders is arm tracing.
It involves lifting your elbows while sliding your thumbs up along your torso from your hips to your armpits, then joining your hands behind your neck, and finally raising them diagonally above your head.
This is another one of Foundation Training’s suprisingly effective moves, seemingly simple but with great biomechanical impact.
Tracing my thumbs up, in combination with continuous decompression breathing, really forces me to open up my shoulders and chest. This is particularly true when lifting my hands from under my armpits to join them behind my neck.
Everytime I do this move, I get a nice feeling of my upper body opening up and stretching out, and my shoulders getting into place while my rib cage expands from my elbows lifting up.
Hip huggers and platter hands
Both are done in conjunction with standing decompression and/or the Founder position.
The hip hugger involves tensioning your hands wide open (like in external shoulder rotations) and pressing the external face of your hands against your hips, with your elbows slightly bent and joined together.
The server platter posture involves pressing your hands, forearms and elbows together in front of your torso, your hands tensioned wide open with the palms facing up and parallel to the floor.
These exercises don’t involve external rotation of the shoulders, but they have a very stabilizing effect. Holding these isometric positions while decompressing gives me a nice feeling of my upper body moving into place.
Quick note : over the past few weeks I’ve been feeling recurring pain in between my shoulder blades, probably due to a strained rhomboid from excessive paddling with incorrect shoulder position.
Doing the external shoulder rotation, hip hugger and platter exercises has a positive impact on my upper body pain – although I know I need to change my paddling habits to eliminate the cause.
Internal hip rotations
As discussed earlier, external rotation of the hip can lead to improper alignment and friction in the hip joint, shortening / lengthening of some leg muscles, possible causing pain issues in the hip, sciatica, knee, and feet.
Foundation Training addresses these imbalances through conscious internal rotation of the hips. Core Elements Activity 4 includes the internally rotated Founder and the leg trace exercise.
The internal Founder is just a Founder with your feet pigeon-toed, that is, your toes are closer together than your heels, forming a slight triangle with your feet.
Once the hips are internally rotated in this manner, follow the same process as a normal Founder : decompression breathing, hinging at the hips, arms forward and up.
While the regular Founder gives you a good stretch in the hamstrings, the internal Founder stretches your Iliotibial (IT) band – the muscle on the outside of the hip that makes the leg move outward.
To me, the internal Founder doesn’t feel so natural. Since little, I’m cursed with an internally rotated left hip – which, according to Foundation Training, is the opposite of most people. As a result, my feet tend to turn inward when I walk.
This has caused me hip issues over the years, somewhat hindering my ability to run long distances. I never did anything to correct it, and I suspect this issue might have been an additional factor to my disc injury, in addition to bad postural habits.
In one of the videos, Dr. Goodman does mention the internal Founder takes a bit of getting used to. I’ll keep working on it and see how it goes.
Leg tracing is done lying on your back (supine) with your legs extended. Then you internally rotate your right leg and press your right heel against your left ankle, while flexing your right toes towards you.
Next, like for arm tracing, you slide your right heel up your left tibia and knee. Once your heel is above your knee, you press your left hand against your right knee to create resistance. Then you switch legs.
As usual, the tracing movement is coupled to decompression breathing and anchoring. To me, leg tracing has a softer and less aggressive impact on my hips than an internal founder. I can feel it helps stabilize my hip joint and strengthen some of the muscles around it.
Well, hopefully, after reading this article you now have an idea of how Foundation Training has helped me cure my back pain by correcting major flaws in my postural and movement patterns.
The rapid and impressive improvements I observed in my overall health and well-being served as proof that FT’s claims were correct.
By fundamentally modifying the way I move and my basic body positions, I effectively eliminated the causes of my chronic pain, and thus the pain itself.
In this article I only touched on Foundation Traning’s most basic principles and techniques. Stay tuned as I cover some more of the many aspects of the program in subsequent posts.
UPDATE: the Core Elements DVDs can no longer be bought on the FT site as they moved to a subscription model, but if you prefer a one-time purchase they’re still up for sale on Amazon here.