12 Best Lower Back Exercises and Stretches for Pain Relief

Stretches and exercises for lower back pain

When your back hurts, the last thing on your mind is exercising; however, the right exercise program can ease your back pain. In fact, gentle strengthening and stretches for the lower back act as a treatment and a preventative. 

If you have a history of back pain, you should seek medical advice before starting any new exercise program. Although the exercises listed here are considered appropriate for people with low back pain, there is always a chance of causing a flare-up when starting something new.

What Are The Best Exercises For Lower Back Pain?

Gaining awareness of the core muscles is an integral part of managing back pain. The muscles that are in front, back, and on the sides of the spine and pelvis are all essential core muscles. Another large, important group of muscles is your gluteals or your butt.

When these muscles are strong, they provide a corset effect on your spine, holding your spine in a neutral position. Becoming aware of your spine’s position during any activity, including sleeping, is vital to preventing strain or injury and managing pain. (1)

When core muscles are weak, your low back is vulnerable and at risk for injury. Performing regular stretching and exercises increases blood flow, improves flexibility, decreases muscle tension, and improves postural stability. 

Below is a list of exercises that can reduce back pain and some exercises to avoid. If you experience increased pain while doing the recommended exercises, stop and make sure that you are tightening your stomach and gluteal muscles before re-starting. If the pain persists once you have made modifications stop doing the exercise altogether. 

12 Best Lower Back Exercises for Back Pain Relief

Stretches and exercises for back pain relief

Piriformis Stretch

The piriformis is an important muscle to stretch as it plays a roll in sciatica pain. The sciatic nerve runs through the piriformis muscle, and if it gets tight, it can irritate the nerve, which can cause pain in your back, buttocks, and leg.

How to: Lay flat on the floor with bent knees.

Cross Your left ankle over your right leg in a figure four position. Clasp your hands around your left leg and gently pull your left knee toward your right shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds.

Alternating do 2 sets of 5 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Lower Back Rotational Stretches

The rotational stretch is one of the most effective low back stretches, and it also serves as a good spine stabilization exercise as well.

How to: Lay on your back, bend both knees and keep feet flat. 

Keeping your knees together, rotate legs down to one side, keeping your shoulders flat on the floor. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then rotate legs toward the opposite side (10). Hold for 5-10 seconds return to starting position.

Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Knee-To-Chest

The knee to chest stretch is one of the best stretches for lower back pain. Tight low back muscles are one of the culprits in low back pain. Stretching increases blood flow to the area and promotes healing.

How to: Lay flat on the floor with both knees bent, feet flat.

Bring your left knee up toward your chest and clasp your hands either behind your thigh or around your shin. Gently pull your knee up toward your head. Hold for 10 seconds, then repeat on the right leg.

Alternating, do 2 sets of 5 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Cat Stretch

The cat stretch is a wonderful stretch for your entire back. It is an effective stretch for the lower back as well as the upper back and neck.

How to: Starting position is on hands and knees with your head in line with your tail bone. Take a deep breath, and as you exhale, pull your stomach muscles up toward your spine as you curve your back up toward the ceiling. (7) Hold for 10 seconds then return to the starting position.

Alternating, do 2 sets of 5 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Press-Up Back Extensions

This exercise is not for everyone; it provides stretching for lower back muscles without contracting them. If this exercise worsens your low back pain, then discontinue it.

How to: Lie on your stomach with legs extended. 

Push up onto your elbows and lift your chest and upper abdomen off the floor. Try to relax your abdominal muscles and lower back to allow your back to bend without muscle contraction (11). Hold 3-5 seconds.

Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Draw-In Maneuvers

In their book, Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques, physical therapists Carolyn Kinser and Lynn Allen Colby report that the drawing-in maneuver is perhaps the best exercise for getting transverse abdominal and multifidus muscles to contract together. Because the transverse and the multifidus are primary contributors to your spinal stability, this “co-contraction,” as it is commonly called, is key for your back.​(4)

These deep abdominal muscles reside very close to your spine, enabling them to provide effective stabilization. However, because they are so deep, it is difficult to feel the muscle contraction when they are tightened, so it may take some practice to master this. I assure you, the benefits will be well worth the work.

How to: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat.

Take a deep breath, and as you let it out slowly, draw your belly button down towards your spine (the floor). Allow the bottom of the stomach to “hollow out” or sink in. 

You should be able to breathe normally and hold this position. Hold for 5 seconds, then relax.

Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Bridges

When done correctly, a bridge will give you a lot of bang for your buck. The basic bridge isolates your gluteal muscles (butt) and your hamstrings (backs of thighs). (2) A bridge also engages stomach, low back, and hip muscles. That’s your whole core!

How to: Lie on your back, arms at your sides with knees bent at shoulder-width apart, feet flat on the floor. 

Tighten your stomach muscles by gently pulling your belly button down toward your spine. Lift your hips off the mat, try to form a diagonal line from your hips to your shoulders. Make sure your back is straight and does not arch. Hold for 5 seconds.

Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

*Note: If you experience pain, try lifting your hips just a few inches off the floor and gradually work your way higher as your strength improves.

Partial Curls

Partial curls strengthen your rectus abdominis; this is the muscle that gives you “six-pack” abs. It is similar to a sit-up except you keep your low back on the floor, lifting only your shoulders and upper back (3).

How to: Lay face up on the floor with knees bent, feet flat, and hip-width apart. You can put your hands behind your head or on your stomach (just make sure you aren’t pulling on your head to bring your shoulders up).

Using your abdominal muscles, curl your upper back up halfway between the floor and your knees, pause then gently uncurl.

Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Pelvic Tilts

How to: Lay flat on the floor with both knees bent.

Notice how there is a natural curve in your low back that keeps it off the floor. Tighten your stomach muscles as you gently roll your pelvis up and flatten the curve in your back so that it touches the floor (5).

Hold for 5 seconds. Don’t hold your breath. Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Bird Dog

The bird dog exercise engages the erector spinae, which is the long muscle that runs along your spine down the length of your back. This is another pivotal muscle to strengthen for increased spine stabilization and to decrease back pain.

How to: Begin in a quadruped position (on your hands and knees) with hands shoulder-width apart and knees hip-width apart.

Tighten your stomach muscles, then attempt to lift your right arm and your left leg off the ground about an inch at first. Try to balance on your opposite hand and knee. (6) Try not to let your pelvis sag to one side. Hold for 5 seconds.

Once you begin to feel stable in that position, attempt to lift your arm and opposite leg higher so that your arm, leg, and body create a straight line.

Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Supermans

The superman is a great exercise to strengthen your lower back and tone your glutes, decreasing pain and increasing stability. (8)

How to: Lie on your stomach with your arms above your head, palms facing in and legs extended. Keep your neck in a neutral position.

Lift your arms and legs up toward the ceiling, creating a letter “U” with your body. Hold for 3-5 seconds, then slowly lower arms and legs back down.

Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

Lying Lateral Leg Lifts (Raises)

Lateral leg lifts strengthen your lateral hips and glutes; they provide support to your lower back, decreasing lower back strain with activity.

How To: Lay on your side with both legs straight.

Lift your top leg about 45 degrees toward the ceiling, keeping your foot in alignment with your head and your stomach and glute muscles tight (9).

Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions, 1-minute rest in between

3 Exercises Not to Do to Avoid Back Pain:

While exercising is good, not all exercises are appropriate for people with low back pain. The exercises below are not recommended due to repetitive strain they put on the spine and intervertebral discs.

Any exercise or activity that continually causes or increases back pain should be stopped immediately.

Toe Touches

Toe touches, when standing, can overstretch ligaments and put stress on intervertebral discs. Toe touches also have the potential to increase sciatica pain and overstretch hamstrings and low back muscles (12).

Sit-Ups

Sit-ups pull on the hip flexors, which attach directly to the lumbar spine. Over tightening or overworking, the hip flexors create an increased pull on the lumbar spine, which can increase back pain (13).

Crunches

Abdominal crunches are not recommended because the repetitive motion causes increased pressure in the discs that are in between your vertebrae. This repetitive increase in pressure can make the discs more susceptible to injury (14).

Final Word

When exercising and stretching the muscles that surround the lower back, you should always proceed with caution. Start out gently, doing movements in a small range to minimize the risk of a potential flare-up. Begin by doing one set of each exercise. Remember, general muscle soreness is normal; increased pain is not.

References

  1. Edwards, Author Makeba Edwards Contributor Makeba. “5 Exercises to Add to Your Lower Back Exercise Program.” ACE, www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/6022/5-exercises-to-add-to-your-lower-back-exercise-program/.
  2. Quinn, Elizabeth. “The Basic Bridge Exercise for Core Stability.” Verywell Fit, Verywell Fit, 31 July 2019, www.verywellfit.com/how-to-do-the-bridge-exercise-3120738.
  3. Black, Kat. “Curl Ups vs. Sit-Ups.” Healthy Living, 29 Sept. 2016, healthyliving.azcentral.com/curl-ups-vs-sit-ups-11489.html.
  4. Asher, Anne, and Cpt. “Learn How to Protect Your Lower Back With the Drawing-In Maneuver.” Verywell Health, Verywell Health, 24 June 2019, www.verywellhealth.com/drawing-in-maneuver-297189.
  5. Pizer, Ann. “How to Do Pelvic Tilts for Back Pain.” Verywell Fit, Verywell Fit, 5 Mar. 2019, www.verywellfit.com/how-to-do-pelvic-tilts-3566908.
  6. Rogers, Paul. “Work Your Abs and Butt With the Bird-Dog Exercise.” Verywell Fit, Verywell Fit, 17 Aug. 2019, www.verywellfit.com/how-to-do-the-bird-dog-exercise-3498253.
  7. “How to Do the Cat Stretch / Fitness / Exercises.” / Fitness / Exercises, www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/fitness/exercises/how-to-do-the-cat-stretch.html.
  8. May, Susi. “How to Do the Superman.” POPSUGAR Fitness, 3 Nov. 2019, www.popsugar.com/fitness/How-Do-Superman-Exercise-1110085.
  9. “Lateral Side Leg Raises.” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group, www.livestrong.com/article/500004-lateral-side-leg-raises/.
  10. “10 Exercises to Strengthen the Lower Back.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323204#lower-back-rotational-stretches.
  11. Asher, Anne, and Cpt. “Strengthen Your Back and Core with the Prone Press Up Exercise.” Verywell Health, Verywell Health, 23 Apr. 2019, www.verywellhealth.com/back-extension-exercise-prone-press-up-296831.
  12. “11 Exercises for Lower Back Pain Relief.” OnHealth, OnHealth, 18 Jan. 2019, www.onhealth.com/content/1/exercises_low_back_pain.
  13. Author Pete McCall Health and Fitness Expert Pete McCall. “Why Does My Back Hurt When I Do Sit-Ups? Am I Doing Something Wrong or Should I Avoid Them?” Why Does My Back Hurt When I Do Sit-Ups | ACE Blog, www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/667/why-does-my-back-hurt-when-i-do-sit-ups-am-i-doing-something-wrong-or-should-i-avoid-them/.
  14. Dilthey, Max Roman. “Are Sit-Ups & Crunches Bad for the Spine?” LIVESTRONG.COM, Leaf Group, 30 Jan. 2018, www.livestrong.com/article/483473-are-situps-crunches-bad-for-the-spine/.
Kim Roderick

Licensed Physical Therapist - Contributor

Kimberly is a practicing Licensed Physical Therapist Assistant with 21 years of experience in the field. She is also a Freelance Writer. On her time off, she enjoys boating, fishing, cooking for her family, and playing with her two Boxers, Letty and Finn.

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