You’ve probably read that a good lumbar support helps keep your back healthy and pain free when you sit. However, like everything, the devil’s in the details. Just how high or low should the lumbar support be? Are some designs better than others in protecting your back? Are there other ways to sit that can actually mimic the benefits of having lumbar support? In this article, I’ll go over the key things you need to know.
Where is the Lumbar on your Back?
Let’s start by going over some basic anatomy. The human spine can be broken up logically into 3 sections based on the natural curves observed in the spinal column:
- Cervical spine
- Thoracic spine
- Lumbar spine
The lumbar refers to the last section, or the lumbar spine. Situated at the bottom, as you can imagine, this is a region that is subject to tremendous pressure as it supports the weight of the entire spinal column.
To locate the lumbar area on your back, sit up straight, and use the back of your hand to run upwards against your lower back starting from the sacrum (above the tailbone). You should feel an inward curve as your hand gradually moves up along the spine. This is your lumbar spine region.
How High or Low Should I Position the Lumbar Support?
To answer this question, let’s skip to the end and look at what the goal of a lumbar support actually is.
The aim of a lumbar support is to properly cradle your lumbar spine so the natural curvature in the lower back is better preserved. This is where your lumbar is the happiest, best able to handle and distribute the load placed on it like in an arched bridge.
With that said, for most people, a good starting point is to adjust the lumbar support so that it’s directly in the middle of the lumbar spine where the inward bend is most pronounced. Then, based on the size and depth of the lumbar support, make further small adjustments. You’ll know the position is perfect when the lumbar support perfectly fills the gap created by your lumbar spine when you sit up straight without pushing your lower back forward too much.
What Type of Lumbar Support Should I Go with?
On the market, you’ll find many types of lumbar support, and while some are definitely better than others in general, it ultimately comes down to your body anatomy and style of sitting. Some general guidelines on choosing a good lumbar support are:
- A lumbar depth of between 0.6” to 2” will work well for most people.
- People with higher BMI (Body Mass Index) will prefer a taller lumbar support targeting higher up in their back.
- Females will benefit from a more pronounced lumbar support due to the increased curvature in their lower back (lordosis),
When it comes to choosing the proper lumbar support, the following are all viable options:
Adjustable Lumbar Support (Office Chairs)
Adjustable lumbar support refers to that which can be modified in at least one dimension on an office chair. Most commonly, this means a height adjustable lumbar support. These days, it’s not uncommon to find one that can be adjusted for depth as well.
Dynamic Lumbar Support (Office Chairs)
In a dynamic lumbar set up, the backrest on the office chair automatically adjusts to your body and sitting posture to provide continued lumbar support. While it sounds good in theory, in practice how well dynamic lumbar works really comes down to the specific office chair in question.
The Herman Miller Embody is a high end office chair with probably the best executed dynamic lumbar support on the market today. Instead of one solid piece, the backrest on the Embody consists of hundreds of flexible sections that move and bend with your back. The pixelated structure cushions and supports your entire spine, not just the lumbar region.
External Lumbar Pillow (Gaming Chairs/ Third Party Accessory)
External lumbar pillows can be found on most gaming chairs or as a 3rd party accessory. They offer mediocre to excellent lower back support depending on the shape, size, and depth.
On most gaming chairs, the external lumbar pillow is just average. The advantage is that it can be moved to exactly the area of your lower back that needs support. Make sure the pillow isn’t completely “free floating”, and is designed to stay in place once in the new position. On the GTRacing gaming chair for example, the lumbar pillow is attached to straps to secure it as it traverses up and down.
The most ergonomic external lumbar pillows are those that are sold separately as an accessory. They usually come with higher quality foam inside and a more ergonomic shape. For people with lower back pain, an external pillow with a cut out around the posterior pelvic tissues has been found to be most comfortable and supportive. Cushion Lab offers a lumbar support that conforms to this design.
Roll Up Towel
And finally, if budget is a concern, experts say that even a roll up towel positioned behind your back can be helpful for maintaining the natural curvature of your lower back. Use a small towel that doesn’t end up pushing your entire back forwards.
What are Some Other Ways to Sit that are Healthier for my Lumbar Spine?
Even the best lumbar support can only do so much to protect your lower back. This is due to the fact that any prolonged sitting position eventually becomes a liability to your spine as pressure accumulates in the same vertebrae and disks involved in maintaining that posture.
To combat this, a good approach is to alternate between sitting positions that promote a neutral spine, in addition to taking periodic microbreaks.
So what are some sitting postures that naturally preserve the curvature of the lumbar spine? Here are a couple of them to consider:
Squatting in front of your laptop may not be the most glamorous way to sit, but there’s a reason why this age-old sitting posture has endured, says researchers.
Firstly, squatting enables you to sit in a way that bypasses most of the ill health effects associated with being stationary. That was the conclusion of a team of researchers that studied the sitting habits of the Hadza, a modern day group of hunters in Tanzania that spend up to 10 hours a day remaining largely sedentary. Their secret? The tribe squatted most of the time when sitting, which scientists calculate can elicit up to 40% of the muscle activity of walking and up to 8x as much as sitting. Think of it as nature’s version of active sitting.
Secondly, squatting better protects your lower back compared to normal sitting. When we squat, the hips automatically open up and shift forward to preserve the natural curvature in the lumbar spine. As long as you’re not slouching when you squat, it’s actually quite difficult to not assume a neutral spine in this position.
See this post for some tips on how to integrate squatting into your sitting routine.
Kneeling is another sitting option that naturally protects your lower back and lumbar from excessive strain. For sustained comfort, the use of a kneeling chair is recommended.
The hallmark of a kneeling chair is the downward sloping seat that drops your knees below hip level when seated. Contrast that to sitting in a regular office chair, where the hips and knees are level.
A study by A.C Mandal showed that sitting in a forward tilting seat with the knees dropped can significantly reduce low back fatigue, by making it easier to maintain the lumbar curve. The angle of the seat also helps shift part of your body weight to your thighs, further diverting pressure away from your back. This is why students naturally tilt their chairs forward at school when sitting when their backs are tired.
When picking a kneeling chair, look for one that can create a hip-to-knees angle of 20 degrees to get the maximum benefits of declined sitting.