How to stretch your back

  • Because back pain can be so debilitating, many people seek out serious interventions (like surgery or heavy-duty pain killers) in order to alleviate their pain — but it turns out, all you might need is a simple stretching routine
  • Most back pain can be resolved by keeping your spine strong and flexible through regular stretching
  • Incorporating a daily stretching routine to strengthen the spine, loosen muscles, and increase flexibility offers serious relief from back pain

You want to maximize your performance and feel your best — but if you’ve got debilitating back pain, it can be hard to focus on anything else. The good news is, back pain relief is often just a few simple back stretches and exercises away.

There are a few back pain causes (like spasms, muscle strains, or disk issues), but the end result is the same — chronic pain that keeps you from living your best life.

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Because back pain can be so debilitating, a lot of people turn to more serious interventions, like surgery or painkillers — but turns out, all you really need is a good stretch. “Most back pain can be resolved by doing regular exercises to keep muscles that support your spine strong and flexible,” says Fei Jiang, PT, DPT, OCS, at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California. In fact, a recent study on back pain found that participants who followed a 12-week stretching regimen reported better back functioning, less pain, and a reduced need for pain medication.[1]

Clearly, stretching works as an effective back pain treatment (and offers a more natural pain relief solution than other common pain interventions, like prescription painkillers or surgery). But why is stretching so effective? Which back pain stretches should you be doing to maximize results? And what are the best ways to incorporate back pain exercises into your daily routine to strengthen your core and keep pain at bay?

Related: Natural Pain Relief: 5 Ways to Relieve Pain Without Ibuprofen

Spine stretch

Technique: Sitting on the floor with your feet wider than your hips, nod your head forward and begin to bend forward by hinging at the hips. Breathe normally. As you go down, draw your chin into your neck. “It feels like you’re rolling down the discs of the spine,” says Margot McKinnon, director of Body Harmonics Pilates in Toronto, who trains Pilates teachers across Canada and the U.S. Slide your hands in front of you along the floor.

“This stretch elongates the paraspinal muscles [the muscles beside the spine], and you may feel it in the hamstrings, calf muscles and the bottoms of the feet.” Your hands should not reach past your toes-you’re not aiming to lie on the floor-and you shouldn’t feel as if your back and spinal ligaments are being pulled. Once you feel the stretch through your back, slowly return to the starting position. McKinnon advises doing this several times daily, after the end of your workday.

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Cat-camel back stretch

Cat-camel back stretch

Technique: On your hands and knees, slowly alternate between arching and rounding your back so that all three sections of your spine-lumbar (lower), thoracic (middle) and cervical (upper)-extend together and then flex together. Do this slowly and gently, and don’t force it. One cycle will take three to four seconds. Repeat stretch five or six times.

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Supine cross-leg spinal twist

Supine cross-leg spinal twist

Technique: Lying on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor, stretch your arms out to your sides, palms face down. Think of this as a yoga move and breathe throughout the stretch; inhale and exhale for about four seconds each. Cross your right knee over your left knee, as if you’re sitting in a chair, with your right foot off the floor. Shift your hips to the right about two inches (5 cm), and drop your knees to the left. “You don’t need the knees to touch the floor,” says Marla Ericksen, an integrated fitness coach and spokesperson for CanFitPro. “Come to a natural stop whenever your range of motion is finished.” Your right shoulder will come off the floor a bit, and that’s okay, as long as you continue to face the ceiling. Now, turn your right hand so the palm faces up and reach your right arm back and halfway up toward your head. “That’s to open up the chest and finish off the rotation of the spine,” says Ericksen. Hold for one to three minutes; repeat on the other side.

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Low-back rotation stretch

Low-back rotation stretch

Technique: Sitting on a chair with your feet flat on the floor, twist your upper body so your shoulders rotate to one side. You can use the chair for support, holding on to get a deep muscle stretch.

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Go only as far as you can comfortably. You will feel the pull from your lower back up to the middle of your back. “You may experience a painless crack from your spine, but that’s normal; it’s just the joints opening up,” says Larry Feldman, a chiropractor and the owner of The Performance Health Centre in Toronto. Hold for 20 seconds or six breaths, and return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Squat stretch

Squat stretch

Technique: Stand with your legs wider than shoulder width apart, and turn toes slightly outward. With your abs and buttocks tight, lower your body, bending at the knees, so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Place your hands on top of your knees. Lift your pelvis (engage the muscles you would use to stop urine flow). Inhale and keep good posture as you press your right hand down on your right knee; exhale and turn your shoulders to your left. Breathe in and out three times (about 20 to 30 seconds total). Stand up, then repeat the stretch on the other side.

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Mermaid Stretch

Mermaid stretch

Technique: Sit on the floor with your knees bent underneath you to your left. With your left hand, hold on to your ankles. Raise your right arm and inhale. Extend and reach that arm over your head, and exhale as you feel the stretch along the right side of your torso. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat twice; switch sides and do three reps.

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Seated forward bend

Seated forward bend

Technique: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Hook a yoga strap or towel around the bottoms of your feet, and leave it there for now. Inhale and reach your arms up to the ceiling. Exhale and begin to bend forward gently by hinging at the hips, and bring your belly down to your thighs. Grasp the yoga strap or towel, keeping your back straight. “You want to lengthen the spine and keep your neck in line with your body,” says Eva Redpath, a personal trainer and the founder of Body Conditioning by Dancers in Toronto. Take another breath and, as you exhale, see if you can bring your upper body even closer to your legs. Hold for between 30 seconds and three minutes. Go as far as you comfortably can, and build from there each time you do it. “Stretch until you feel mild tension, nothing strenuous or painful. Over time, as you practise this stretch, you’ll be able to go down farther.”

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Spinal Trunk Rotation

Spinal trunk rotation

Technique: Lie on your back and bring knees up toward your chest so your body is positioned as if you’re sitting in a chair. Your knees and hips should be bent at 90-degree angles. Now, place the palms of your hands flat on the floor. “Take a deep breath and slowly exhale as you count down from four and bring your knees down to the right side,” says Mark Crocker, owner of In Your Element Personal Fitness and Rehabilitation in St. John’s. Lift your left hip up but keep your shoulders touching the floor. “Always take it slow. If you do it fast, you defeat the purpose of the stretch.” Try to keep your knees together and tip them over as far as you can, while keeping your hands on the floor. Hold for a minimum of 30 seconds. Return to start and repeat, dropping knees to the left this time. Do this stretch daily, once on each side.

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Wall slide

Wall slide

Technique: Stand against a wall so your tailbone, shoulder blades and head are all pressed against the wall. Hold your hands at shoulder level with your elbows bent at 45 degrees, and palms facing forward. Slowly extend your arms up the wall, pointing your hands as far up as they’ll go, not moving your tailbone, shoulder blades or head, and keeping them pressed against the wall. “Be slow and controlled, and try to reach as high as you can,” says Scott Tate, a Toronto-based certified kinesiologist and spokesperson for the Ontario Kinesiology Association. Return to the starting position slowly. You should take about five to 10 seconds to reach up, and another five to 10 seconds to bring your arms back down. Repeat from eight to 12 times (if you have shoulder issues, try three to five times). “It’s surprising how challenging it can be,” he says. You’ll feel the stretch across your chest and shoulders, and up your back.

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Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Seated spinal twist

Seated spinal twist

Technique: The key, says Jay Blahnik, world-renowned fitness educator and author of Full-Body Flexibility, is to lengthen the spine rather than forcing the body into a position. Begin by sitting tall, extending both legs in front of you. Bend right knee and cross it over the left thigh, then bend left knee (you can keep your left leg straight if necessary). Take left elbow and place it on the outside of the right knee, then place right hand on the floor behind you, looking over your right shoulder. Hold and breathe deeply for 15 to 30 seconds, and release. Switch sides and repeat. “Try and remember to ‘lift’ through your back and not simply twist your spine,” says Blahnik.

Find out more about the benefits of this stretch.

Related:• 3 moves to strengthen your back• 6 essential cool-down stretches• 4 moves for a strong, sexy back

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Why stretching works on back pain

back pain stretchesBefore we dive into the best back pain stretches, let’s talk about why stretching is such an effective treatment for back pain relief.

“Regular movement and stretching can help alleviate back pain by relaxing tight muscles and improving circulation to help nourish the spine,” says Jiang.

Not only will regular stretching help loosen the muscles and get rid of existing back pain, but it can also strengthen the back — and lower your chances of dealing with back pain in the future.

“Stretching of the back and legs can help maintain or improve movement for everyday functions. For example, being limber will help you lift objects off the floor or put on shoes without increased stress to the back,” says Jiang. “Additionally, physical activity [like stretching] can help increase back resilience, so that one can perform more activities without increased pain.”

Stretching is a one-two punch for treating back pain; if you’re currently dealing with back pain, it will get you back to tip-top shape in no time. And by incorporating regular stretching into your fitness routine, you’ll strengthen your back — making it less likely you’ll have to deal with an injury or chronic pain in the future.

When it comes to back pain, regular stretching is a win-win.

Related: 4 Minutes to Perfect Posture and Less Back Pain

Best back pain stretches

So, now that you know why stretching is so effective for alleviating (and preventing) back pain, let’s talk about the how — a proven stretching routine that’s going to deliver real results for back pain.

Here are five stretches to incorporate into your daily routine to alleviate back pain and maximize performance:

Trunk rotation stretch

Stretch: Begin lying on the mat with knees bent. While maintaining upper back flat on the ground, rotate legs towards the floor until a stretch is felt. Repeat the stretch on the opposite side. Hold each stretch for 5 seconds, repeat 10 times.

Why it works: “This stretch helps improve mobility of the spine while relaxing the muscles on the sides of the trunk,” says Jiang.

Child’s pose

back pain stretchesStretch: Begin on all fours. Sit your hips back while reaching out your arms forward until a mild stretch is felt in the back. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times.

Why it works: “This stretch helps improve mobility of the spine while relaxing the muscles of the lower back,” says Jiang.

Cat-camel back stretch

back pain stretchesStretch: Begin on all fours. Arch your back towards the ceiling and hold. Then arch your back towards the ground and hold. Hold each stretch for 5 seconds, repeat 10 times.

Why it works: “This stretch helps maintain mobility of the spine while strengthening the back and abdominal muscles,” says Jiang.

Hamstring stretch

back pain stretchesStretch: Begin sitting on the floor with one leg straight, and the other bent. While maintaining a flat back, lean forward by hinging from the hip until a stretch is felt behind the thigh. Repeat on the other leg. Hold each stretch for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times.

Why it works: “[When you spend a large portion of your time sitting], the back of the legs gets tight. This would cause pulling of the back when bending forward. Having flexible hamstrings allows for decreased stress in the back with bending and lifting activities,” says Jiang.

Hip flexor stretch

back pain stretchesStretch: Begin by kneeling on a mat. Lean forward towards the bent front knee until a stretch in front of the opposite thigh is felt. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times.

Why it works: “[When you spend a large portion of your time sitting], the front of the hips get tight. This would cause the hip muscles to pull the lower back forward in standing, thereby increasing stress in the lower back. Increased flexibility in hip flexors will help with decreased back pain in upright activities,” says Jiang.

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For back pain relief, make stretching a daily routine

back pain stretchesStretching is one of the most effective ways to relieve back pain — if you’re consistent with your stretching routine. In order for stretching to work — and for you to get the most pain-busting benefits from your stretching routine — you need to stretch every day.

If you want to maximize the benefit of your back pain stretches, the key is to transform stretching into a “once-in-awhile” (or not at all!) practice into a non-negotiable part of your daily routine.

Here are some tips to incorporate stretching into your day-to-day routine (and kick back pain to the curb in the process):

Stretch when your eyes open in the morning…

If you want to make stretching a habit, make it the first thing you do in the morning — before anything else (like, you know…life) gets in the way.

Not only will stretching first thing in the AM make it easier to get into a regular stretching habit, but it will also increase blood flow to your muscles — which will deliver the boost of energy you need to get your day started.

…and before your head hits the pillow at night

Stretching right when you wake up is great — and so is stretching right before you go to sleep. Getting in a good stretch before your head hits the pillow will help alleviate any tension from the day, which will help relax your body and make it easier to drift off to sleep.

Bookend your day with stretching — morning and evening — to maximize the benefit.

Set reminders throughout the day

back pain stretchesYou’ll want to go through a full stretching routine in the AM and PM — but if you really want to maximize the pain-relieving benefits of stretching, you should also plan to take small stretch breaks throughout the day.

Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to get up and stretch every two hours or download an app like StretchClock that will send you alerts when it’s time to get up and stretch.

Back pain is a real drag — and it can keep you from feeling your best or performing at your highest level. But with the right stretches, you can build strength, alleviate back pain, and maximize your performance. So what are you waiting for? Get stretching!

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Why is Your Back So Tight?

6 Back Stretches to Improve Poor Sitting HabitsBack pain or tightness is not always well understood. It could be an anatomical issue or it may not.

One person may have an MRI that shows advanced arthritis in the spine, but experience no symptoms at all, while another may experience chronic pain for months or years with no abnormal imaging.

Back pain and stiffness aren’t necessarily a sign that you have bodily damage, but it’s a signal from your brain that there is something going on that it doesn’t like.

Often, these issues crop up because of your regular daily activities, such as sitting in a position that creates a habit of tightening up, or it’s simply that you sit too much and would be helped by moving around more.

Sometimes, genetics or age can be factors in your back issues, although I’d caution you against letting those prevent you from working on improving your condition. (Click here for an article about why age doesn’t have to limit you).

Whatever the cause of your tight or achy back, the following routine will help you get better. For more information on causes of these issues, see our accompanying article on the spine, as well as this article on common myths about posture.

Get Your Body Moving and Feeling Better

Standing Back Stretch to Help Loosen a Tight BackIf you’ve read this far and tried out the exercises in this routine, I’m guessing you’ve been dealing with some discomfort or restriction in your spine for a while.

I know how hard that is–I’ve dealt with back pain myself–and I think you’ll find these daily back stretches to be helpful.

More often than not with patients experiencing restrictions in their backs, there are issues going on in other areas of the body as well. You may know this to be true from your own history.

Getting movement throughout your body is a key part of healing your back, and our Elements course is a great way to build the strength, flexibility, and motor control you need throughout your body. With Elements, you’ll build the foundation you need to move on to more advanced goals down the line.

Elements helps strengthen the back (and the rest of the body!) using locomotive patterns. So it’s not a bunch of boring stretches, but movement that works.

GMB Elements Details

Strengthen your Back using Locomotive Patterns

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