Back stretches for back pain

As a physiotherapist, this is probably the most common question I get asked by my new patients:

Patient: Mark, my back hurts! What can you do to fix me?

In fact, a lot of my new patients are probably quite similar to you! Does “What can you do to fix me?” sound like something you would ask  or have asked your health practitioner?

Although I strive to physically help as many  patients as I can, I feel patients should rather ask the question, “What can I do to help fix myself?”.

As a firm believer of self empowerment,  the aim of this article is to empower the individual (… that would be you) to take control of their own pain.

What this article is about in less than 10 words

The Problem: Back pain

The Answer: Back stretches

Simple, right? Okay… so it isn’t actually as easy as that, but these basic back stretches are a good place to start.

Let me be clear – these are general stretches and are not intended to be the only exercises you should be doing if you suffer from lower back pain. There may be multiple factors contributing to your back issue that will require more specific exercises.

 Got some questions?… I’ve got you covered!

// What are the causes of back pain ?

There are a multitude of factors that we can go through that cause your back pain, but if you asked me what I consider to be the leading cause, I would say: SITTING

It’s probably what you’re doing right now. Either you’ve been sitting there for a couple of hours already (or going to) or sitting with questionable posture. That’s not good!

Prolonged sitting (…especially with bad posture) places a lot of stress on the structures in your back making them tight, painful and vulnerable to injury. Make sure you read this post: The correct pelvic position to learn about how to position your pelvis properly whilst sitting.

// I’ve got disc bulge/herniation, arthritis, nerve impingement etc, should I still do back stretches for my back ?

My immediate response: Yes! As long as there is absolutely no pain or discomfort whilst doing the stretches.

Be aware that there are a few circumstances where it is advisable to consult a health practitioner  prior to commencing any back stretches.

// Why are back stretches important ?

  • 1. To return normal movement: If you are like me and have suffered bad back pain, moving is probably the last thing you want to do. But that’s the thing… the body actually requires movement to heal properly. The sooner you start moving and stretching, the sooner you will start to heal.
  • 2. Desensitize painful movements: Your body tends to be overly sensitive when it is experiencing pain. Movements that usually aren’t a problem (like bending over) all of a sudden start to cause pain. Regular back stretches (within your limits) will enable the body to move more normally.
  • 3. Prevent/treat stiffness: This one is pretty straight forward. You stretch what is tight.

// How often do you need to do these back stretches?

Everyday for at least 10-15 minutes. Think about it this way: The more you sit, the more you need to do your exercises!

Now, I know a lot of you are busy people and may find it difficult to commit to doing this everyday… but if you make the effort to incorporate these back stretches, it will eventually become a daily routine for you and your body will thank you for it.

// Do I need to do all 10 of the back stretches?

No. There are some exercises that you may find very helpful and others not so helpful. Whilst you are performing all the stretches for the first time, pay attention to how your body responds. Select the exercises that give you the most relief.

WARNING: All these exercises are to be performed absolutely PAIN-FREE. These stretches are designed to be gentle and easy. Do not push pass what you are capable of doing. If you experience any increase in your symptoms:

  • 1) Change your technique
  • 2) Reduce the amount of movement
  • 3) If all else fails – STOP the exercise and continue with the ones you are able to do.

Please contact me if you are unable to find a suitable stretch.

The 10 best back stretches

Here are some general exercises to help you. Please note that I have not assessed you individually and some of these exercises may not be suitable for you. But having said, these 10 back stretches/exercises are definitely a good place to kick start a healthier spine.

(I have arranged these exercises in order of difficulty – easiest to hardest.)

1. Pelvic tilts

This is your STARTING POSITION for many of the other stretches.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent.
  • Engage your stomach muscles by drawing in your belly button.
  • Gently flatten the arch of your lower back to the ground by rotating your pelvis backwards.
  • Hold this position for 5 seconds. Repeat 10-20 times.

Video from OrthoIndy Northwest

2. Lumbar Roll


  • Starting position as per pelvic tilt (see above).
  • Let your knees drop all the way down to one side.
  • Alternate sides.
  • Make sure not to go past any point which is painful.
  • Repeat 10-20 times.

Video from Rehab Health Library

3. Single knee to chest


  • Starting position as per pelvic tilt (See above).
  • Grab one knee towards your chest. Go as far as you can comfortably go.
  • Allow the remainder leg to straighten out.
  • Hold this position for 5-10 seconds.
  • Alternate legs.
  • Repeat 10 times.

Video from Smart PT Pro

4. Knee to Chest


  • Starting position as per pelvic tilt (see above).
  • Grab both knees and gently pull them towards your chest.
  • Hold this position for 5 seconds. Repeat 10-20 times.

Video from expertvillage

5. Prone extension


  • Whilst lying on your stomach, use your forearms to slowly arch backwards as high as you can comfortably tolerate.
  • You should feel some gentle tension across your lower back. No pain should be experienced.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times.

Video from Rehab my patient

6. Camel/Cat stretch


  • Get into the table top position (hands and knees on the floor, hands underneath shoulder joint, knees underneath hip joints, back in neutral position).
  • Position 1: Engage your stomach muscles by drawing in your belly button and round the whole back.
  • Position 2: Flatten your back as you stick your bottom out.
  • Oscillate between these positions for 10-20 repetitions.

Video from expertvillage

7. Hip flexor


  • Whilst standing, grab your ankle and pull your leg back.
  • Make sure to have the knee behind your hip joint.
  • To increase your stretch, tuck your tailbone underneath you.
  • Hold this position for 20-30 seconds. Repeat 3-5 times.
  • (See video for variations)

Video from MaddenPT

8. Nerve stretch


  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet touching the floor.
  • Pull your knee towards you so that your hip is at 90 degrees.
  • Straighten your knee as much as you can.
  • Whilst maintaining this position, begin to point and bend your ankle.
  • You should feel a pulling sensation along the back portion of your leg.
  •  Repeat 10-20 times.
  • Alternate with other leg.

Video from HEP to go

9. QL/Thoracolumbar Stretch


  • (see video)

Video from Mike Wasilisin

10. Back block stretch


  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
  • Lift your bottom off the floor and place a block (or rolled up towel) under your sacrum.
  • Let your legs relax down so that you are in a lying down position.
  • Hold this position for 60 seconds. You should feel a comfortable pulling sensation in your lower back.
  • Lift your bottom upwards and remove the block from underneath you
  • Gently perform knee to chest exercise (see stretch #4 above)
  • Repeat 3-5 cycles

Video from Sport and Spinal Physio

How long will I have to do these back stretches? Now that you have a simple strategy to address your back issues, I encourage you to continue with these back stretches until you get achieve a good result. Some of you may find relief immediately whereas others may take some time. It’s different for everybody.

I wish you all the best with your back stretches! Remember you can keep in touch with me at the contact me page. I really look forward to hearing from you!

20 thoughts on “Back stretches for back pain”

  1. Hello Mark , First i really appreciate the time you dedicate to help people via your blog and would like to thank you for that. I contact you because i think i suffer pelvic floor dysfunction ( tight )due to misalignment of my body. PFD lead me recently to lot of problem like erectile dysfunction , no libido and penile numbness. I also suffer from back pain and i think it correlate with all those symptoms. I spend a lot of time searching for a cure on the internet and find some post talking about people suffering the same condition. I also take note that all we have in commun was a very bad lifestyle , includind long hour of sitting. At this point i realise it was maybe a postural problem. Im really tall (6.4) and my muscles seem tight. Could you recommend me a serie of exercise/scretch to do for my particular case , i would really appreciate it. Finding a good physio in cambodia is really limited and difficult.

    Thanks again.

  2. Hi Mark
    I have a disc bulge in L5S1 so I am doing your back pain stretches. I also have pain in pelvis and Hips as well as severe tingling and numbness when I sit down. So much so that I cannot sit for longer than couple of mins as becomes intolerable. I have had mri which confirmed the disc bulge. I am waiting for a hospital appt which may take several weeks so doing your stretches in the meantime. The most distressing thing is the fact I cannot sit, it seems whenever my buttocks are compressed the severe tingling, pins and needles start. It knocks me sick.
    I can lie flat with legs raised up and and walk ok although legs feel weak since the tingling sensation started a couple of weeks ago. Just wondered if you had come across this sitting problem before and if there is any other exercise you can recommend for me?

    • Hi Shirls,

      It sounds like your nerve that comes from the L5/S1 is quite irritated (… perhaps with increased inflammation making everything super sensitive).

      Here are some things that you can try (but please be careful.. if in doubt, ask your doctor)

      1. Take anti-inflammatory medication (ask doctor)
      2. Continue with pain-free exercises. The ones on this page are fine. Perhaps stay away from the last 2 as they are a bit more advanced.
      3. Keep walking/moving as much as you can COMFORTABLY handle. You need to keep your muscles moving.
      4. Try hydrotherapy (walking in water)
      5. Avoid excessive lower back bending for now. Posterior disc bulges at the L5/S1 tend to make the back more sensitive in the flexed position.
      6. If the back remains inflamed, you may benefit from a cortisone injection.


  3. Hi Mark – excellent post. Please keep them coming.

    What do you think of the methods recommended by Dr Stuart McGill (‘Back Mechanic’ He seems pretty popular. His central idea seems to be stabilization of the spine to treat back issues. However in his book he specifically says don’t do stretches like knees to chest, lumbar rolls etc.

    What do you think of this type of advice around stretching. And what is your opinion of his ideas generally?

    • Hey David,

      In my opinion, stabilisation and movement of the spine are BOTH equally as important as each other.

      Although stretching (such as knee to chest, lumbar rolls) by itself is unlikely to gain long lasting improvements, it still has its place for sure. There should always be some sort of strengthening/control component that follows a stretch program.


  4. Hi Mark
    Thank you for a terrific website! Can you recommend any stretches for SI joint pain beside the usual knee to chest and piriformis figure 4 stretch, which I’m finding useless the minute I sit down (or begin to squat) again? Tried some DonTigny bent over elbow to opposite ankle, not helping.
    Thank you,
    In pain,

  5. This is great! I already do some of these exercises but there are some new ones on here! I have a bulging disc and I do a lot of yoga to help with pain and build strength in the back and abs. IS there any movements you would recommend NOT doing for a bulging disc (l4/l5). I have been taking it super easy and trying to cut back on any twisting motions and trying not to take too many deep forward bending stretches.

    • Hi Jayne,

      If you have a disc bulge, there are some positions that you should definitely minimise your exposure to.

      … But it all depends on exactly where the bulge is, and which part of is bulging out.

      If you are like most people, you probably have a posterior disc bulge at L4/5 and/or L5/S1. For you – I would recommend avoiding any Lumbar flexion exercises where you are standing. (eg. touching your toes whilst standing).

      However… if you have the core strength, flexibility and have been practising this move for a long time now with nil symptoms, then you can continue to do so.

      If in doubt, let pain be your guide. Every exercise should be pain-free.

      Hope this helps!

  6. i have quite an excessive anterior tilt with left sciatic pain, i also have a strained left facet joint. but now my mid to upper back is cramping up and hurting whenever im sitting.
    i am on workcover and want to get better, please guide me!

    • Hi Jesse,

      I would try to address your left sciatic nerve pain before anything.

      Something like this exercise is a great place to start:

      (See image)

      In terms of your anterior pelvic tilt, have a look at this post: How to fix an Anterior Pelvic Tilt

      If sitting for prolonged periods of time definitely aggravates your pain, try to avoid sitting if you can. If you can’t avoid it, try to get up and walk around every 20-30 minutes.

      If you are on WorkCover, you should be seeing a physiotherapist. Have they prescribed any exercises for you?

      Looking forward to your response.


  7. I have a right anterior tilt (with sciatic pain) and a left posterior tilt (no sciatic pain). I’ve done a lot of these stretches given to me by my therapist but I still have this. Do you have any suggestions as to why I have this deviation in my lumbar spine and any recommended exercises to help. Thanks!

    • Hi Linda,

      Usually if you have a rotated/tilt pelvis, it is likely due to a muscular imbalance. This can involve many muscles, and is usually dependent on your sitting /standing posture.

      If there is sciatic pain, I would try to calm down the nerve issue first before do anything else.

      1. Try Sciatic Nerve stretch/floss:
      Click here for video

      2. Open up the Right side of your spine to free up the nerve. Only bend to the Left hand side.
      Click here for video

      Make sure there is no pain, or increase in any symptoms. There should just be a stretch sensation to the right side.

      Let me know if that makes sense.


      • Thank you. I have done something similar to the 1st video by lying on my back with my leg lifted in the air and flexing the foot in that position but it seems to aggravate the nerve. Nothing is more painful than nerve pain! Thanks again.

  8. I did not realize that there were so many stretches to help with back pain. I think that it is important to be able to do these stretches. I have had back pain most of my life and I think that it is important to relieve back pain.

  9. I did not realize that back stretches could be so powerful in relieving back pain. I go to a chiropractor and get my back adjusted frequently, but I have never been sent home with stretches to do. I will try some of these stretches demonstrated in the videos.

  10. Great post! One of our team members have pulled their back muscle before and some of the exercises that you recommended were some of the ones that they incorporated into their daily exercise to strengthen those muscles again. It’s great that you provide a large variety of exercises that we can do so we choose which ones are most relevant to us. Thanks for sharing.


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