How to Stretch Your Lower Back
Give this much needed area some love.
Is there anything worse than pain in your lower back? Whether it’s a chronic ailment or sudden discomfort, pain or tightness in your lower back can wreak havoc on an otherwise perfect day. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, at least 80 percent of Americans will experience low back pain in their lifetime, so this is a widespread problem that should be addressed.
“Lower back pain can range from mild discomfort throughout the day or sharp shooting pain when moving,” says strength and conditioning coach Stephen Pizza. “Stretches can aid in temporary relief. However, without fixing posture problems, structural problems with the spine itself or the muscles surrounding the spine, you’ll never fix the issue.”
Rather than react to lower back pain, it’s important to get ahead of it by proactively stretching the lower back before and after exercise. In addition to strength training, maintaining a healthy weight and making sure you’re practicing good posture, stretching your lower back now can help prevent lower back pain in the future. Here’s how.
Some Likely Culprits
There are a few things we do every day that can contribute to tightness in our lower back. “Poor posture, stress and lack of sleep have all been shown to increase back pain and discomfort,” says Pizza. “But the worst thing you can do for your spine is sitting for long periods of time. Sedentary behavior atrophies the muscles until there is no support to protect the spine and help aid in movement.”
Jay Whiting, a health strategist at Five Point Wellness, couldn’t agree more. “The single major cause of back pain is inactivity,” he says. “We’re so automated now that movement has become the very thing that keeps our bodies functional and strong.”
But Whiting also says that diet plays a major role in helping (or hurting) back pain. He says that eliminating processed and sugar-laden foods can help get necessary nutrients to muscles, ligaments and joints. Cutting down on these types of foods will also decrease inflammation, which can exacerbate many back issues.
How to Stretch
When it comes to stretching your lower back, it helps to first start with the breath. “Breathing not only helps oxygenate your muscles, but it helps increase diaphragm strength which raises awareness of the muscles associated with a stronger core—which also helps with back pain,” says Whiting.
To complement breathwork, lower back stretches can be improved with strength training that develops muscles in the core, spine, pelvis, upper and lower back. Strengthening the glutes is also one of the main factors for strengthening the back because glutes help support the lumbar spine. For glutes, Pizza recommends doing bridges, fire hydrants and clam shells. For the core, he likes bracing exercises, bird dogs, dead bugs and side planks. Here’s one of each:
Lie on your side with legs stacked and knees bent at 45-degree angles. Rest your head on your lower arm, and use your top arm to steady yourself. With your feet together, use your core to raise your upper knee as high as you can. Do 20 reps on each side.
Lie down with your arms extended straight over your chest so they form a perpendicular angle with your torso. Bend your hips and knees 90-degrees, lifting your feet from the ground. Engage your core. Keep your right arm and left leg where they are, then slowly reach your left arm backward, over your head and toward the floor as you simultaneously extend your right knee and hip, reaching your right heel toward the floor. Reverse the movement, then switch to the opposite side. Do 20 reps on each side.
When doing strength training exercises, make sure to pay attention to proper form. “With improper movements, we can develop muscle imbalances that eventually cause structural imbalances,” says Pizza. “These have the power to change the pelvis, or give us anterior or posterior pelvic tilts, both of which are not good. Anytime we have pain in the body, our natural reaction is to compensate by fixing our movement pattern to where our body is not in pain anymore. This can make the pain worse.”
The Best and Worst Stretching Exercises
It’s been said before but it bears repeating: The worst stretching you can do is none at all. Because many of us are required to sit at a computer for our jobs, it can be impossible to decrease the amount of sitting one does in a day. But that’s exactly why countering sedentary behavior with exercise and lower back stretches is so important.
Whiting likes downward dog, child’s pose and any hip flexor stretch to loosen a tight lower back. Pizza likes a mix of dynamic stretches (think knee hugs and straight leg kicks) that can be done laying down or standing for added balance and static stretches (think figure four and pigeon pose). “Dynamic lifts have also been shown to lengthen muscle fibers for longer periods of time, along with activating the muscles and creating joint viscosity,” he says. “This helps the joints to move more freely at an increased range of motion. All of these help decrease pain, and increase range of motion to help with movement.”
So to recap: Stretching your lower back is best paired with targeted strength training, which will help strengthen muscles that support the spine. And, of course, stretching your lower back (even the tiniest amount) is better than doing nothing at all. Ready to get moving?