The increasing amount of time people spend pursuing sedentary activities these days means that lower back pain is an issue which affects pretty much all of us at some point or another. Whether it’s too much time sat hunched over a laptop in the office, or slouched on the sofa watching TV or playing video games, huge numbers of people treat their lumbar spines with absolute contempt.
Fortunately for most, the discomfort that this modern day lifestyle inflicts upon us, can be relatively easily remedied with a good deal of stretching, to alleviate the pain, and strengthening, to help prevent problems persisting in the future.
- Stretching Exercises To Relieve Lower Back Pain
- Strength exercises to prevent lower back pain
Stretching Exercises To Relieve Lower Back Pain
There are a number of useful and easy to master stretching exercises which if performed regularly can not only help to reduce discomfort and get you moving again after a prolonged period of lower back pain but can also help to prevent recurrences of similar issues.
Lay flat on your back with your knees bent to approximately 90 degrees and the soles of your feet flat on the floor. Keeping your knees together, allow them to drop to one side, maintaining contact with the floor with both shoulders so that is only your hips which rotate. Return slowly to the start position before repeating the movement in the opposite direction.
This exercise can be easily progressed by adopting the same start position as above but with only one leg bent and the other straight. Rotate the hips away from the bent leg so that the knee moves towards the floor, again keeping both shoulders in contact with the floor if possible (dependent on your flexibility). Use the opposite arm to the leg that is bent in order to apply pressure and increase the level of stretch.
Knee to chest rolls
Laying flat on your back, bring your knees towards your chest and grip them with both arms (lower back in flexion). Rock backwards slightly before rocking forwards all the way into a seated position, all the while keeping your knees close to your chest with your hands. As you reach this seated position, try to arch you lower back by pushing your hips forwards and pulling your shoulders back by squeezing your shoulder blades together. This will generate a little extension in your lumbar spine. Rock back to the start position, returning your lower back to a position of flexion and repeat the movement.
Lay flat on your back with your knees bent to around 90 degrees and the soles of your feet in contact with the floor. Flatten your lower back into the floor by tensing your abdominal muscles and tilting your pelvis posteriorly (forwards). Hold this position for a short period of time before arching your lower back by tilting your pelvis anteriorly (backwards). Hold this position for a short period of time, moving continuously between a posterior pelvic tilt and an anterior pelvic tilt.
Tilt, bridge and roll
This is an excellent progression exercise to the pelvic tilts above. Lay flat on your back with your knees bent to 90 degrees and the soles of your feet flat on the floor. Tilt your hips forwards by pushing the base of the spine into the floor (creating flexion in the lower back) and pulling your belly button towards your spine (this will engage your core). Maintaining this tilted hip position, raise your bottom off the floor, maintaining contact with the ground through your feet and shoulders (as if performing a simple bridge). Once at the top of the range (shoulders, hips and ankles in a straight diagonal line) relax your core and arch your lower back by allowing your hips to drop slightly to the floor (creating extension in the lower back). Re-engage the core and tilt the hips forward again before lowering yourself back towards the floor, making contact first with your upper back and curving your spine into the floor so that your lower back and bottom are the last parts of your body to come into contact with the ground. Repeat the movement slowly (the whole movement should take at last 20 seconds) a minimum of 3 times, being sure to concentrate on the tilting of the hips and the engagement and relaxation of the core in order to generate lower back flexion and extension at the correct times during the movement.
Seated chair flexion
This is one of the most effective ways I have found of generating a good deal of back flexion to really stretch and lengthen the muscles in your lower back and create appropriate gapping between the facet joints, which make up the lumbar spine, without which nerve impingement can be a problem. Sitting on an ordinary chair, bend forwards to grip the front legs of the chair with either hand whilst remaining seated. By pulling harder against the legs of the chair and forcing your head closer to towards the floor you will really be able to increase the intensity of the stretch.
Standing wall spine curls
Stand with your back flat against a wall. Slowly peel your spine away from the wall one vertebrae at a time, starting at the top of your thoracic and gradually moving down your back towards your lumbar spine. As you perform this movement, you will naturally move into a position as if you are touching your toes (bend slightly at the knee if your hamstring flexibility requires it). Hang in this fully flexed position for a short period of time with your arms and head completely relaxed. Move slowly back towards the start position in complete reverse, making contact with the wall first with the vertebrae in your lower back, gradually moving up the spine until your whole back is in contact with the wall once again. Repeat the movement multiple times.
Thoracic under under’s
So far, we’ve focused on stretches and movements targeting the lower back specifically. It is possible however, that the pain or discomfort you’re experiencing in your lower back is being caused by tightness and lack of mobility in your thoracic spine.
This particular stretch is a great way of getting your upper back moving properly. Adopt a position on all fours with your hands (directly under your shoulders) and knees (directly under your hips) in contact with the floor. Lift your right hand slightly off the floor and move it under your left arm, dropping your right shoulder towards the ground causing you to rotate your thoracic spine. Return to the start position before repeating the movement in the other direction.
There are a number of factors which can contribute to lower back pain which don’t actually have a great deal to do with the muscles and joints in your back. Tightness in the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors, for instance, are often a leading cause. Address this tightness, and you will be able to go at least some way to alleviating the discomfort you might be experiencing in your lower back.
Myofascial release of your glutes and hamstrings
One of the most effective ways of loosening the muscles in your glutes and hamstrings, without resorting to the costly services of a physiotherapist, is to use a firm ball (tennis or lacrosse for instance) or a foam roller to self massage. Simply position the ball or foam roller in an area of your muscle which feels particularly tight and allow your body weight to take care of the rest. Rock backwards and forwards slowly over the area of focus for as long as you can tolerate the inevitable pain (this is good pain).
Pigeon glute stretch
If possible myofascial release should always be combined with appropriate stretching for the most effective relief of muscle tightness. The pigeon is almost certainly my go to glute stretch and is one of the most effective ways of achieving improved muscle length.
Adopt a position on all fours with your hands and knees in contact with the floor. Bring your right knee forwards and out to the side so that the lower half of your leg (below the knee) is perpendicular to the torso and flat on the ground with the toes of your right foot pointing to the left. To increase the intensity of the stretch, extend your arms out in front of the body and move your head and chest towards the ground as if you are adopting the child’s pose discussed above. To change the focus of the stretch you can walk your hands out to the left and right hand side of your body.
There are plenty of different ways you can stretch your hamstrings. One of my personal favourites is to adopt an upright kneeling position and bring one leg straight out in front of you so that your heel is in contact with the floor. Depending on the flexibility of your hamstrings you can fold forwards at the hips slightly in order to increase the intensity of the stretch.
Just as effective is to lay flat on your back, legs straight and lift one of your legs up towards the ceiling using your arms to pull a band or towel positioned under the heel, ort by placing your hands behind the knee. Maintain as straight a leg as possible (slight knee bend is okay) and raise the leg until you feel the stretch. Being uncomfortable is good (that means you’re increasing the length in the hamstring muscles). Being in considerable pain, however is not good, so be sure to back off the stretch if it starts causing more than mild discomfort. For a stretch which really hits the top of the hamstrings, raise your leg with a 90 degree knee bend until your thigh is beyond perpendicular to your body, again using a band on your hands positioned behind the knee. Once in this position, attempt to extend the knee so that your leg straightens. If you’re anything like me, a completely straight leg is going to be out of reach, but you will be surprised at how even being able to straighten your leg slightly will bring on a really effective stretch in your upper hamstrings.
So… we’ve stretched our hamstrings in a kneeling position and in a lying position. It only seems fair then, to give you a standing option. Standing face on to a surface approximately hip height (this will depend on your hamstring flexibility) raise one leg up and place your heel on the raised surface so that your leg is straight (slight knee bend is fine). As with any of the other methods, you want to be experiencing mild discomfort so you must find the correct intensity of stretch for you by finding a surface of an appropriate height. It will be pretty obvious to you pretty quickly if the surface you are trying to use is too low or too high.
Hip flexor stretch
Now the close connection between hip flexor tightness and lower back pain can be counterintuitive to many (given that your hip flexors are part of your posterior chain and your lower back is part of your anterior chain). However, tightness in the hip flexors can cause an anterior pelvic tilt, which in turn alters your posture and can compress your lower spine causing pain. Consequently, keeping good length in your hip flexors can be integral to staving off lower back pain.
The easiest way to stretch your hip flexors is in a standard lunge position with your back knee in contact with the floor. By generating a slight posterior tilt in your pelvis (pulling your butt in and rounding your lower back slightly) you will really be able to get a good quality stretch. An easy way of increasing the intensity of the stretch and altering the focus slightly towards the quad muscles is to rest your back foot on a raised surface as if performing a bulgarian squat.
One of the most common yoga transitions going, this is a great way to ease your lumbar spine in and out of flexion and extension. When your suffering from lower back pain, chances are, one of these two positions is going to be problematic. In my experience, spending too much time in either flexion or extension is generally the root of the issue. Think sitting in a chair with your lower back rounded for the best part of 10 hours a day. One of the best ways to alleviate some of this discomfort is by gently moving your lumbar spine in and out of flexion and extension. Your back likes movement.
Adopt a position on all fours (hands and knees in contact with the ground) with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Your back should be flat like a table top in this position. Begin by rounding your back, stretching your thoracic spine between your shoulder blades and tilting your hips forwards so that your lower back is curved (flexion). Hold for a short period of time (a few seconds) before arching your lower back by tilting your hips backwards and squeezing your shoulder blades together (extension). Again hold for a few seconds before rounding your back again. Repeat the movement over and over again, transitioning between flexion and extension with each movement.
Adopt exactly the same starting position as above. Reach your arms out directly in front of you so that your palms are flat on the ground and fingers pointing forwards. Push your hips backwards so that your bottom moves towards your heels and your head and chest drops towards the ground. Hold this position (flexion) for up to 15 seconds. Return slowly to the start position and repeat the movement.
Lie flat on the floor on your front with your hips in contact with the ground. Position your hands directly underneath your shoulders, elbows tucked in close to your body (your arms will be bent), with the palms of your hands flat on the floor and your fingers pointing forwards. Begin to straighten your arms, lifting your chest whilst maintaining contact with the floor through your hips and the fronts of your legs and toes. For many (particularly those spending the majority of their day sat down) this can be a pretty agressive stretch. Only straighten your arms enough to feel the stretch. For a more gentle introduction to this position, prop yourself up on your forearms instead of your hands. Hold the position of extension for up to 15 seconds before lowering yourself back to the start position. Repeat the movement a number of times.
Child’s pose to Cobra pose
Once you have mastered the child’s and cobra poses, independently of each other, one of the most effective ways of relieving lower back pain is to transition between the two positions. This movement can act as a great progression exercise from the cat/camel above, putting your lower back into more extreme positions of flexion and extension. This movement is a regular component of my warm up routine, whether I’m lifting in the gym or running outside, helping me prevent against any significant lower back pain.
Strength exercises to prevent lower back pain
Stretching exercises to relieve lower back pain are mighty helpful but wouldn’t you rather never experience it in the first place…? This is where a few basic strengthening exercises can really come into their own!
One of the most effective ways of helping to prevent chronic lower back pain is by strengthening the core muscles which help to support your spine and thus take some of the stress away from the muscles and joints that make up your back.
Here are 10 of my favourite core strengthening exercises:
- Swiss Ball Jacknife
- Swiss Ball Pot Stirs
- Swiss Ball Prone Twists
- Swiss Ball Legs Elevated Crunch
- Swiss Ball Grasshopper
- Barbell Russian Twist
- Side Plank And Cable Row
- Hanging Oblique Raises
- Bear Crunch
Weak glute muscles means you lower back can be more susceptible to tightness and discomfort through overworking. The glutes are the biggest and strongest muscle in the body so you’d be daft not to optimise their capability to your benefit.
Here are 5 of my all time favourites: