5 of the best stretches to relieve lower back pain — and how to do each correctly to prevent injury
- Stretching the muscles in your lower back can help improve flexibility and prevent lower back pain.
- Stretching other muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, and calves promotes proper movement when bending, which may help prevent and alleviate lower back pain.
- People who perform lifting, bending, and twisting activities are most likely to be affected by
low back pain.
- This article was medically reviewed by Joey Thurman, CSCS, CPT, FNS, a Chicago-based
fitnessexpert and MYX Fitness coach.
Lower back pain is extremely common. As many as 80% of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives, and up to 20% of adults experience back pain in a given year.
Anyone can suffer from back pain, even children. However, advancing age, being overweight and a sedentary lifestyle are all risk factors, according to the National Institutes of
"People who perform lifting, bending, and twisting activities will most likely be affected by low back pain," says Justin Matsuno, a physical therapist at the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California. "People who perform some combination of these movements repetitively, like health care professionals assisting patients in and out of bed, will be at a greater risk for experiencing low back pain."
Learn more about the many kinds of stretches to help alleviate tension and discomfort as well as the conditions and activities that contribute to lower back pain.
Stretches to alleviate lower back pain
Stretching the muscles in your lower back can help improve flexibility and prevent lower back pain. And some research suggests that all you need to see an improvement is to
"Stretches reduce muscle tension and promote muscle elasticity to improve joint range of motion and flexibility," says Matsuno. "Increasing spinal joint mobility and flexibility will allow for our spine to bend when necessary, like a gymnast tumbling or a person rolling to cushion a fall."
Here are five stretches that can prevent and alleviate lower back pain:
1. Glute stretch (knee to chest)
- Why it works: The glutes — the muscles in and around your buttocks — help stabilize your pelvis. The gluteus maximus is also a powerful muscle that can be isolated and used to squat down and pick up heavy objects, rather than lifting from your back. Stretching your glutes will ensure this muscle group has a full range of motion, which takes the pressure off your lower back.
- How to do it: Lay with your back on the floor with legs outstretched. Next, pull one knee toward your chest. Hold for 30-60 seconds, then switch legs. Repeat.
2. Piriformis stretch
- Why it works: The piriformis is a small muscle located near the buttocks and hips. A 2017 study found that about 80% of sedentary people had tightness in their piriformis, which can contribute to lower back pain. Stretching the piriformis can help alleviate that pain.
- How to do it: There are different ways to stretch your piriformis. One is to get into a sitting position, straighten your right leg and then cross your left leg over it. Then twist your body to the left until you feel a slight pull on your piriformis. Start by holding this position for just a few seconds, and gradually increase time to 30 seconds. Then switch sides.
3. Hamstring stretch
- Why it works: The hamstrings — the muscle group in the back of your thigh — generate power for proper lifting, which can prevent lower back pain. Having limber hamstrings improves your range of motion through the entire lower body, which can prevent lower back strain.
- How to do it: In a seated position, extend one leg straight. Position the foot of your opposite leg resting against your upper thigh. Keeping your back straight, reach toward your ankle or foot. Hold for 30-60 seconds, then switch sides. Repeat.
4. Wig Wags
- Why it works: This stretch loosens up all the muscles of the lower back with a gentle twisting motion. It can improve your day-to-day range of motion and prevent injury.
- How to do it: Lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet on the floor; have your arms out to the side. Twist your body, dropping your knees first to the right. Stop when you feel a stretch in your lower back, and hold for 15 seconds. Next, twist to the left and repeat; continue this back-and-forth movement for 1-2 minutes.
5. Cat-cow stretch
- Why it works: This classic yoga pose combination gently stretches muscles in the lower back, encouraging good range of motion.
- How to do it: Start on all fours, facing the floor, with your back straight. As you take a breath in, drop your belly toward the floor, rounding your spine into a "u" shape for cow position. Next, slowly breath in, drawing in your stomach and arching your spine into a "n" shape for cat position. Gently switch between the two positions about 10 times.
What causes back pain?
There are many causes of lower back pain, ranging from conditions like spina bifida, in which the spine is irregularly formed, to spinal arthritis, where the joints in your spine become inflamed and painful. However, the most common cause of lower back pain is muscle strain and sprains, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.
"Muscles surrounding the lower spine are small thin muscles designed to hold one's posture and to hold a position for long periods of time," Matsuno says. "They are not designed for generating large amounts of force or dynamic powerful movements like bending and twisting at the waist to move or lift heavy objects."
Making those movements repeatedly can strain the muscle and cause pain. When muscles are strained, they're not functioning properly, which can lead to stress on the spine or joints, causing more pain and creating a pain cycle, Matsuno says.
Stretching should focus on the entire lower body, not just the lower back.
"It is important to stretch muscles of the lower extremities as well as the low back to promote proper movement patterns," Matsuno says. "By stretching our glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles, it promotes the proper movement patterns of bending from the lower extremities and not the back."
Matsuno recommends completing the exercises about 1-2 times per day. When doing the stretches, you should never feel pain, just a gentle stretching. "It is important to know one's own limitations and not overdo it," he says.
In addition to stretching, educating yourself about proper posture and movement can help prevent lower back pain.
"[Strained muscles] can sometimes be due to the lack of understanding of proper body mechanics or one's own limitations, which is why proper training and education of best professional practices and good body mechanics is so important," Matsuno says.
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