Your back is probably not something you spend a lot of time thinking about—until you have problems with it. If you’ve experienced any sort of lower back pain, you know it can make ordinary activities such as carrying things, or even sleeping, near impossible. Since the best offense is a good defense, it’s important to maintain good back health, and stretching is a relatively simple (and cost efficient) way to do so. Here’s why you should be stretching your lower back, and some stretches you can do right at home.
Meet the Expert
Why is it Important to Stretch Your Lower Back?
Your back is what literally holds you upright and lets you move. Matthew Morris says stretching your lower back can help keep your spine aligned and improve your posture, increase flexibility and range of motion, prevent future instances of lower back pain, and reduce tension of the muscles surrounding and supporting the spine.
Beyond that, stretching your back may help prevent health problems in the future. Your spine is supported by your core, and if you have weak core muscles, the spine “can alter and cause things like scoliosis, degenerative discs, bulging discs, herniated discs, arthritis, sometimes even metabolic issues,” says Denise Molina.
In addition, if you tend to sit hunched over, Molina says that affects your ability to breathe properly, your core disengages, and “the spinal column starts to cut off organs that need space to properly function." And improper organ functioning leaves room for potential disease. "One of my favorite quotes from Hippocrates is: ‘When disease happens, look to the spine,’" says Molina. "So it is very important to stretch your back.”
What Are Some Common Causes of Lower Back Pain?
Whether you’re trying to pinpoint the cause of any current or past lower back pain—or want to know how to avoid it—here are some common causes.
- Sitting too long throughout the day where your hips are in constant flexion.
- Not warming up properly before working out which can lead a pulled or strained muscle.
- Constantly performing exercises with incorrect form.
- Tight and/or weak glute muscles, which can lead to lower back discomfort.
- A weak core: “A lot of people think of their core as their abs,” says Molina. “Your abs are not what make up your core. In Pilates we do not call it your core, we call it the powerhouse. If you place one hand at your sternum and one hand at your pubic bone, then wrap around the entire midsection, that makes up your powerhouse.”
- Joint mobility (especially in the spine, hips, and sacroiliac (SI) joint): If your posture and weight shifts, your joints can start to misalign, causing muscles and other things to be off, says Molina.
How Often Should You Be Stretching?
The short answer is, it depends on your body. Some people are tight, some are flexible. Some people tend to slouch or hunch more than others. Find the right exercises and frequency for you. “If you have a hard time stretching on your own before, after, or in between your workouts,” says Molina, “then make sure to carve out the time with a yoga/Pilates class, massage therapy, or any other type of body work to keep you accountable to taking care of your body.”
As a starting point, Morris suggests trying to stretch your lower back at least once a day, or if you can’t do daily, aim for 2-3 times a week.
Lower Back Stretches to Try at Home
It doesn’t require any fancy equipment to stretch your back; you simply need some room in your house and schedule.
This is a classic yoga pose that will stretch your lower back, hips, glutes, and hamstrings, says Morris.
- Start on all fours, with your hands and knees on the ground.
- Sink and hinge your hips back into your heels while extending your arms over your head.
- Keep your head down and facing the floor.
- Take long inhales and exhales and hold for at least 30 seconds.
This stretch will work both flexion and extension of the spine and help increase flexibility.
- Start with your hands on the floor directly underneath your shoulders and your knees directly underneath your hips.
- Push your hand through the floor, and inhale as you look up (the “cow” part of the stretch, which encourages spinal extension).
- Exhale as you drive your chin to your chest and round your back as much as you can (the “cat” part of the stretch, for spinal flexion).
- Perform 10 reps each way.
Knee to Chest
This stretch will help loosen your lower back, hip flexors, and glutes.
- Start by laying on your back extended on the floor.
- Bring one knee into your chest and hold it there while keeping the other leg extended on the floor.
- Keep your back on the floor, flex your foot, and take long inhales and exhales.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds, release your leg back into the starting position.
- Switch legs.
Seated Forward Fold
This stretch will help relieve tightness in your lower back and hamstrings.
- Sit tall on your glutes with your legs together and extended out in front of you.
- Take a long inhale and extend your arms over your head.
- Exhale and fold over your extended legs with your extended arms, keeping your back straight.
- Relax your neck and take long inhales and exhales.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds.
This stretch and exercise will help activate your glute muscles to support your lower back.
- Lay on your back with your feet flat on the floor and heels directly underneath your knees.
- Drive your heels through the floor and lift your hips
- Draw your rib cage down, squeeze your glutes together, and hold while inhaling/exhaling.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Slowly lower your back down to the floor.
Shin Box Switch
Molina suggests this joint mobility stretch, which is similar to the pigeon pose in yoga.
- Sit with one leg bent in front at a 90° angle, and pin the other leg back behind you at a 90° angle. Make sure your feet are not pulled in too close to the body.
- Sit up tall with your arms up in a “genie” position and see if you can get both sitz bones anchored into your mat. If not, no worries; you can work up to that.
- Lift both knees up at the same time (feet are planted) and switch them over to the other side. If you are having trouble sitting up straight, place the hands behind your hips for assistance.
- Repeat 10 times, or as needed.
This dynamic stretch is similar to a walking lunge.
- Step out into a lunge with the back leg extended and arms overhead.
- Take in a deep breath and slowly lift the chest up towards the sky, stretching your abdominals and hip.
- Switch legs and repeat 10-20 steps as needed.
Another dynamic stretch.
- Lay down on your side with your legs extended down your mat and your arms extended out in front of you. The hands are stacked one on top of the other, bottom hand on the floor.
- Take your top leg out in front to a 90° angle.
- Think of a clock, take your top hand and trace the floor with your fingertips up over your head and around like the arm of a clock, keeping your knee down on the floor.
- Keep your abs pulled in while you circle around (elbow stays extended), creating spinal rotation, and return back to your starting position.
- Repeat six to 10 times as needed, and then switch sides.
Molina recommends any type of plank to stretch your lower back, but one of her favorites is a high plant with a shoulder tap. This helps with stabilizing your shoulders, strengthening your powerhouse, and aligning your spine.
- Start on your hands and feet. Your hands should be directly below your shoulders and your body should be in a straight line. Your feet can be together, or wider for more stability.
- Without shifting your weight, take your right hand and tap your left shoulder.
- Switch, and tap your left hand to your right shoulder.
This one one of the best powerhouse exercises in Pilates, explains Molina, and it helps elongate the spine, strengthen your powerhouse, and expand the lungs and diaphragm.
- Lay on your back with your legs down on your mat/ground and your arms down by your side.
- Press your abs gently into the mat/ground and lift your head, bringing your chin to your chest to protect your neck.
- Lift your feet 45° up from the ground. Make sure your tailbone is down on the mat/ground.
- Start pumping your arms alongside the hips and take in a big belly breath for five secs/arm pumps.
- Exhale for five seconds/arm pumps.
- Repeat for 10 breaths (100 arms pumps).
Calatayud J, Escriche-Escuder A, Cruz-Montecinos C, Andersen LL, Pérez-Alenda S, Aiguadé R, Casaña J. Tolerability and Muscle Activity of Core Muscle Exercises in Chronic Low-back Pain. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Sep 20;16(19):3509. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16193509.