Back stretches for back 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.


The content presented on this blog post is not medical advice and should not be treated as such. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment.

For more information: Medical disclaimer.


Common questions?

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 as 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.

The 10 best back stretches

These 10 back stretches 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.
Instructions:

  • Get into the 4 point kneel position.
  • Gently tilt your pelvis forwards and backwards.
  • As you perform this, you should feel the lower back contract and relax.
  • Repeat 10-20 times.

2. Lumbar Roll

Instructions:

  • 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.

3. Single knee to chest

Instructions:

  • 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.

4. Knee to Chest

Instructions:

  • 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.

5. Prone extension

Instructions:

  • 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.

6. Camel/Cat stretch

Instructions:

  • 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.

7. Hip flexor

hip flexor stretch

Instructions:

  • Assume the lunge position as above.
  • Perform a posterior pelvic tilt
    • “Tuck your tail bone underneath you” 
    • Keep your glutes contracted.
  • Lean your torso away from the side you are stretching.
  • Aim to feel a pulling sensation at the front of your hip.
  • Hold for 30 seconds.

8. Nerve stretch

Instructions:

  • Place your foot on a bench.
  • Keep your leg completely straight.
  • Lean forwards at the hips.
  • Point and bend your ankle.
  • Aim to feel a deep stretch anywhere along the back of your leg.
  • Repeat 20 times.

9. QL/Thoracolumbar Stretch

QL stretch

Instructions:

  • Whilst standing, place your left hand on left hip.
  • Push your hip towards the right.
  • Whilst reaching over to the left with your right hand, tilt your torso to the left.
  • Aim to feel a stretch on the right side.
  • Repeat on other side.
  • Target area: Upper Quadratus Lumborum

10. Back block stretch

Instructions:

  • 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

29 thoughts on “Back stretches for back pain”

  1. Hi, Mark.
    I have a question: do you know what muscles in my lower back might be causing my pain?

    Every day, I wake up with lower back pain in the area slightly above my glutes. I’ve done your exercises and they help but I’m not sure what these muscles are called. Specifically, the prone extension exercise seems to target these muscles very well since I feel better after doing them but I don’t know what the muscles are.

    Reply
    • Hey Melty,

      There are quite a few muscles that are in the lower back.

      Commonly -It is the erector spinae muscle group. (Longissimus, iliocostalis)

      Mark

  2. Hi Mark I used your thoracic pain video and it helped a lot but now I have L5/s1 herniation and stenosis causing me much difficulty. I stomped my foot and it’s been aching for weeks and affecting my quality of life severely . I’m hoping you can give me some advice and pointers on what to do. Thanks for the help

    Reply
    • Hey Steven,

      You stomped your foot and it caused a L5/S1 disc herniation? That sucks!

      If you are in a lot of pain, you will need to control the inflammation first.

      I would suggest a strong course of anti-inflammatory medications for 2 weeks (but you will need to talk to your doctor regarding this)

      In the meanwhile, keep the lower back as mobile and active as possible.

      The exercises/stretches mentioned here are a great place to start. Do not move into pain.

      Once everything has calmed down, you will want to find out exactly what has predisposed you to getting this lower back issue.

      I would check your pelvis posture and go from there.

      Mark

    • Hi Mark thanks for the reply. I already had a herniation there plus stenosis and some arthritis. The stomp just increased my pain. It’s been almost two weeks and hasn’t gone away. Usually it would be gone by now.

  3. No bones sticking out, I sent you a picture on Facebook. It’s more like the spine was divided into two parts, when bending over the lower part (at a certain angle) just stops moving whilst the other half continues – thus making the back look like an L rather than a rounded C – pointy angle and not rounded like others

    Reply
  4. Hi Mark!

    I have this weird problem with my back that nobody seems to have the answer for.

    When I bend over to reach my toes, my lower back bends in half creating this pointy angle, it doesn’t get rounded like others. I would say I’m pretty flexible can easily put my head into my knees with straight legs.

    It’s kinda hard to explain, I have photos as well. I know many have this same problem after posting in different forums about it.

    Hope to hear from u and thanks in advance! ❤️

    Reply
    • Hi David,

      If you can place your head between your knees whilst standing, I’d say you are very flexible in the hamstrings.

      I am not too sure what you mean by a pointy angle. Do you mean the bone sticks out more than the others?

      If so – you may just have a bony prominence likely at L4 or L5 spinous process.

      Mark

  5. 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.

    Reply
  6. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Mark

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

    What do you think of the methods recommended by Dr Stuart McGill (‘Back Mechanic’ https://www.backfitpro.com). 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

      Mark

  8. 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,
    Dave

    Reply
  9. 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.

    Reply
    • 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!

  10. 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!

    Reply
    • Hi Jesse,

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

      Something like this exercise is a great place to start:

      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.

      Mark

  11. 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!

    Reply
    • 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:

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

      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.

      Mark

    • 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.

  12. 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.

    Reply
  13. 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.

    Reply
  14. 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.
    J.T

    Reply
    • Hi J.T! Thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the post.
      I hope that these exercises can assist with the recovery of your team member’s back.
      Mark

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