If simple things like twisting to reach for your phone, or a sneeze, trigger pain in your lower back, it may be time to practice lower back stretches that target and relieve tension here. Whether it’s an ongoing injury or a temporary setback, it’s best to address lower back pain (also known as lumbar pain) as early as possible.
As many as 23% of adults globally experience chronic lower back pain, which can stem from mechanical issues (disc and soft tissue injuries), degenerative problems (like osteoarthritis), inflammation, oncology (cancer-related), or infections like soft tissue abscesses.
Another major cause of lower back pain occurs during pregnancy, where a myriad of hormones, musculoskeletal and body mass shifts leave around 50% of people lingering with lower back pain even one year postpartum.
The lower back is comprised of five vertebrae, a network of nerves, discs, muscles and other tissues. Tightness in other areas such as the hamstrings and hip flexors are common culprits, and can interfere with fluid motion of the spine and therefore your mobility.
Thankfully, stretching can help you regain your range of motion, making everyday tasks such as climbing stairs and lifting objects less bothersome.
Here are 10 gentle stretches for the lower back. You will need a cushioned yoga mat and a sturdy chair.
Cat-Cow (sometimes called cat-camel) is a dynamic, yet soothing, yoga stretch that incorporates two movements. Its key function is to lengthen and improve the spine’s flexibility. It also promotes excellent posture and brings awareness to major muscles, including those of your core.
- Start on all fours with your wrists aligned to shoulders and knees to hips—knees hip-width apart. Toes are untucked.
- To begin, keep a neutral spine and gaze looking forward.
- On an inhale, transition to cow pose by dipping your stomach toward the ground, raising your chin up and looking to the ceiling. Relax your shoulders back and down.
- On an exhale, move into cat pose by scooping your belly to your spine, curving your spine and tucking your chin toward your chest. Push your hands into the mat to feel the full stretch.
- Flow between positions for one minute.
Known as Balasana (‘bala’ means child and ‘sana’ means posture in Sanskrit), Child’s Pose is also a popular stretch in Pilates and yoga and a welcome pause during a tough workout. This stretch is also great at elongating the lower back muscles and opening the hips. This can reduce stress and back pain, as well as bloating.
- Start kneeling tall, with knees hip-width apart and palms resting on your thighs.
- Forward bend and reach your arms forward as you sit your glutes back on your heels, toes touching and knees spread.
- As you exhale, push your glutes back to rest on your heels as you lower your upper body toward the mat.
- Stretch your arms long and forward with palms facing down.
- Rest your head on the mat as you press your chest further toward the ground to deepen the stretch. Hold for 30-60 seconds, taking deep breaths.
This stretch loosens and lengthens tight muscles in the lower back, your erector spinae and glutes. Be extra cautious if you suffer from a slipped disc or osteoarthritis as this positioning can aggravate the pain further. The knee-to-chest stretch is a simple, yet effective stretch to quickly relieve tension caused by tight muscles in the lower back.
- Lie on your back and bend your knees, feet flat on the floor.
- Bend your right leg toward your chest and interlace both hands just under your knee. Pull your leg toward your torso, relaxing your lower body on the mat. You can keep your other leg bent or straight, as long as your back doesn't hurt. If it hurts, try bending your leg to keep your spine neutral on the floor.
- Hold for 30 seconds while taking deep breaths and return to the leg back before switching to the other. Repeat three times on each leg.
Supine Spinal Twist
As the name suggests, this exercise involves a gentle twisting motion to relieve tension in the spine and lower back regions. Twisting motions are also a massage for your internal organs, which can relieve constipation and improve digestion.
- Lie face up on the mat, legs stretched long and arms lengthened out in a T-shape with palms facing down.
- Gently activate your core by pulling your belly towards your spine. At the same time, bend your left knee and on an exhale, pull it over your right leg as you twist your spine.
- Rest your left knee on the floor in front of your right leg, gently pushing down on the knee with your right hand. Keep your gaze toward your left hand to deepen the twist and stretch.
- Hold for five long breaths and slowly rotate back to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
Lower back pain can cause a postural shift, often with your pelvis tilting forward and lordosis (a more prominent curve) of the spine. Pelvic tilts can rectify the mechanics by firing up the core to improve stabilization in this area, which can reduce strain on the lower back.
- Lie on your back, with knees bent and feet on the mat.
- Scoop your belly button in and press your lower back into the mat, before tilting your pelvis back and holding for a second or two.
- Inhale and rotate the pelvis forward, feeling the movement in your lower back.
- Continue for one minute for three rounds.
The shoulder bridge stretch is a take on a classical Pilates exercise that mobilizes the spine and lengthens the muscles along the back to help alleviate tightness and tension.
- Lie on your back and bend your knees with feet planted on the mat. Arms are straight and resting by your side.
- As you start the movement, inhale and press your lower back into the mat, before exhaling and raising your hips up, pushing through your hips.
- At the top of the movement squeeze your glutes and check your hips are above your ribs in a straight line.
- Hold for a second or two before lowering back down, starting from the top of your spine and rolling the vertebrae back down like a bicycle chain reconnecting.
- Repeat 10 times for two-three rounds.
The standing roll-down opens the space between each vertebra across the entire spine to relieve tightness and also reset your posture and kick-start those core muscles for better stability across your entire body.
You can practice this exercise next to a wall for added support throughout the movement.
- Stand with your heels against the wall and then take around a half-foot step forward.
- Scoop your belly and keep your core braced. Rest your shoulders down, letting your arms hang by your sides.
- Take a deep breath in and as you exhale, tuck your chin toward your chest and begin to roll the body down from the neck first, one vertebra at a time.
- Your head, neck and shoulders will continue to round forward as you curve the spine.
- Lower as far as you can without straining your hamstrings. You can also bend your knees as your hands brush the floor.
- On an exhale, rewind from the ground up by re-stacking your spine, vertebrae by vertebrae, using your abdominal muscles to help bring you back up to standing, resting your shoulders down.
- Continue for 6-10 roll-downs.
Tight hips can cause your pelvis to rotate forward, leading to lower back pain. The figure four stretch encourages your hips to open and massages your lower back as it rests on the mat. You should feel this stretch in your glutes, too.
- Lie on your mat face up with bent knees and feet flat, hands resting by your side.
- Lift your right leg and, keeping a bend at the knee, cross and rest your foot over your left knee.
- Clasp both hands behind your left knee and pull that leg toward your body, keeping the feet flexed and your head and shoulder relaxed on the mat. You will feel a stretch along your right hip.
- Hold for 20-30 seconds and breathe deeply, before returning the leg back and switching sides.
A seated fold is a popular yoga pose in which your body forward folds onto itself, stretching your whole back as well as loosening your hamstrings and hips.
- Sit tall on your mat with legs straight in front and feet actively flexed.
- On an exhale, lean forward by hinging at your hips, reaching your arms long in front. Make sure you stretch rather than collapse your back.
- Reach your hands as far as you comfortably can along your legs and lower your head toward your lower body.
- You can bend your knees if you need to, for further reach. You can also loop a light resistance band or yoga strap around your feet and grab a side in each hand to gently pull yourself deeper into the stretch.
- Hold for 30 seconds for three rounds.
Seated Nerve Flossing
Your lower back will feel the pinch if sciatica or a herniated disc is at the root of your problem. Caused by compression on the sciatic nerve, sciatica pain radiates along the lower back and often down the leg, into your foot. If a flare-up is causing tension and pain, nerve flossing will stretch localized muscles to bring about relief, however, you will likely feel some mild pain with this stretch. If the pain is intolerable, you shouldn’t do this stretch.
- Start sitting tall in a chair. On an exhale, tuck your chin into your chest and slump over from below your chest.
- Bring your arms to rest behind your back.
- Straighten your right leg with your foot flexed and raise it up toward your upper body.
- Lower it back down and repeat this on the same leg for a total of ten times, keeping the upper body slumped.
- Roll back up to the starting point and repeat the same for the other leg.
A Quick Review
When low back pain flares up or persists, even the simplest motions can become painful. It can happen out of the blue, like a sudden fall, or linked to an ongoing issue such as a slipped disc, sciatica, osteoarthritis or lingering problems post pregnancy.
Sometimes, stretching can help lengthen muscles that may be spasming or just tight in the lower back. You can target this region with exercises such as cat-cow and standing roll-down, which lengthen and relax lower back muscles to facilitate easier movement.