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Lower Back Pain? 7 Exercises and Stretches To Get Back at It

When your lower back locks up, walking and stretching are key

person doing child's pose in yoga class

Your back is a finicky thing, isn’t it?

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Too much standing? Back pain. Too much leaning over while gardening? Ouch. Long day sitting in meetings? Ack! My back!

It can seem like the sweet spot between too much and too little activity is a tough line to find. But when you cross it, your back will let you know.

When your lower back is yelling for relief, you may be tempted to head to bed and wait it out. But that’s usually not your best bet, says physical therapist Patti Kopasakis, DPT.

“When you have lower back pain, your first instinct may be to rest, but that just adds more stiffness to the equation,” Dr. Kopasakis explains. “Gentle movement can help to work out the kinks. But the key is to listen to your body and not plow through pain.”

Here, Dr. Kopasakis shares some of the best exercises and stretches to relieve your lower back pain.

Best stretches and exercises for lower back pain

The best way to work out your lower back pain can depend on a few things.

For starters, if your pain is the result of trauma, like a fall or an accident, talk with a healthcare provider before attempting to stretch it out yourself. The same goes for back pain that’s associated with a cough, vomiting or other signs of illness.

But if your pain comes after a long day of sitting in an uncomfortable chair or after going too hard on housework or yardwork, some light exercise and stretching may be just what you need.

“Listen to the feedback you’re getting from your body,” Dr. Kopasakis advises. “If things are hurting worse, that’s an indicator to back off.”

Notice, too, how different kinds of movements affect you differently. If your pain isn’t improving after trying some forward stretching, try extending backward instead. And vice versa: If it doesn’t feel good to arch your back and lift your chest, try some forward-bending movements instead.

“Ultimately, the goal is to get good movement in all directions without pain,” she says. “But it may take some time and trial and error to find what works best for you.”

Start with your breath

Your breath can create more space within your body, which can allow your exercises and stretches to be more productive. That’s because breathing is a cue to your nervous system (your fight-or-flight response) that you’re not in a dangerous situation and it can slow its roll.

“What tends to happen is that back pain tenses up when you feel pain, which makes movement difficult,” Dr. Kopasakis explains. “Your brain interprets these pain signals and will limit your movement.”

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This can make you want to avoid moving. That leads to stiffness, which creates more pain. It’s a vicious cycle.

But there’s a difference between hurt and harm that can be hard to sort out when your body is in a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state. Your body interprets pain (hurt) as a threat of all-out damage (harm). But not every pain is a sign of real harm.

“There’s a difference between experiencing some pain and having a true injury,” Dr. Kopasakis clarifies. “People can be afraid that pain automatically equates with structural damage. But unless you’ve experienced some kind of inciting event, like an accident or illness, you’re often just getting signals from your brain that something is off. Not that you’ve actually been harmed.”

Dr. Kopasakis suggests that before exercising or stretching your lower back, try some deep breathing techniques to help calm your nervous system.

Focus on taking a nice, long inhale and exhale. Relax your abs and relax your back.

“Deep breathing is a nice way to get the nervous system in a calmer state to be able to move more freely and have the best success,” she says.

Once your body is ready for it, give these stretches and exercises a try. Again, listen to your body and push to the point of feeling a stretch. Back off any movements that further aggravate your pain.

1. Lying trunk rotation

This lying twist can be done by lying on your back. Choose the surface that’s most comfortable for you, whether it’s the floor or a bed.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent so your feet are flat on the surface. Your knees should be touching, or as close to touching as you can get comfortably.
  2. Gently and slowly move your knees to one side. Try to keep your shoulders and upper back pinned down. The goal is to feel a light stretch on the side opposite of where your knees are heading.
  3. When you feel that stretch, hold for five to 10 seconds.
  4. Gently bring your knees back to center. Then, lower them toward the other side.
  5. Repeat for three to five times per side, or whatever feels good.

2. Supported cat-cow

The cat-cow yoga pose helps bring flexibility to your spine. Typically, it’s done on your hands and knees, starting in a tabletop position. This modification can bring similar benefits but with less strain on your aching back.

  1. Place both your hands flat on a counter, desk or tabletop, keeping your arms straight at your elbows.
  2. Push on your hands as you gently round your back, bringing your head down toward your chest (cat).
  3. Drop your chest, pull your shoulders back toward each other and move your head to look up (cow).
  4. Slowly flow through both cat and cow three to five times, moving very gently.

3. Side bend

This standing stretch targets the sides of your abs and back. If you find that keeping your balance is difficult, try holding a counter or table with one hand while you stretch to the other side.

  1. Stand with your arms stretched up straight over your head.
  2. Plant your feet firmly to the ground, about hip-width apart.
  3. Stretch your arms and upper body over to one side. Try to keep your hips straight, rather than lifting them up or sticking them out to the side as you stretch.
  4. Hold for three to five seconds.
  5. Return to center.
  6. Repeat as you stretch to the other side.
  7. Stretch each side three to five times.

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4. Bridge

Bridge pose is a good stretch to get your spine back in a neutral position and get your glutes working to ease pain in your lower pack. If it’s safe and comfortable for you to get down to (and up from) the floor, start there for this stretch. Or try it in bed if that’s easier.

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent so your feet are flat on the surface. Keep your knees about hip-width apart. Place your arms along the sides of your body.
  2. Using your buttock muscles, lift your hips up. Ease into it. Don’t feel like you need to go too high too fast. Just lift until you feel the stretch.
  3. Hold for three to five seconds then lower back down.
  4. Rest for three to five seconds and repeat for about five repetitions.

5. Standing child’s pose

Like cat-cow, child’s pose is typically done on the floor. But a modified version uses a countertop or other higher surface to be gentler on an aching back.

  1. Place both your hands flat on a counter, desk or tabletop, keeping your arms straight at your elbows.
  2. Step your feet backward, keeping your feet about hip-width apart.
  3. Hinge at your hips, moving your backside back. Keep your back flat. There should be a long, straight line from your hands to your tailbone. Allow your neck to relax.
  4. Hold this stretch for five to 10 seconds.

6. Traditional child’s pose

If your body will allow, the traditional child’s pose can help loosen up your back as well.

  1. Start in a tabletop position on the floor or on a bed (on your hands and knees).
  2. Touch your big toes to each other and spread your knees wide.
  3. Move your hips back so your bottom is resting on your heels. Your arms and hands should be on the surface below you, on either side of your head, reaching forward.
  4. Hold the pose for 10 to 30 seconds.

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7. Walk

Walking can help work out the kinks when your lower back is flared up, but you’ll want to take a few precautions, Dr. Kopasakis advises.

How far and how often you walk to relieve your back pain is a matter of your activity level and how your body tolerates it. Start by going a short distance and working your way up. That may mean walking down your street for two houses and coming back. If you’re feeling OK, go two houses in the other direction. The idea is not to stray too far from your home base. Remember, the farther you go in one direction, the farther you have to walk to get back.

And while it’s easy to stop stretching or exercising when you notice tension, walking isn’t something you can necessarily stop doing the second you feel uncomfortable.

“As you’re walking, if you notice discomfort, don’t just plow through. Stop and take a deep breath. Think about trying to relax your muscles,” Dr. Kopasakis advises. “Sometimes, people don’t realize how tightly they’re holding their body — how much they’re guarding — until they take that deep breath and really make an effort to relax. And then, they may realize, ‘OK, yeah, I was holding a lot of tension there. And now I have some new space to move in.’”

When to seek professional advice

Again, if your back pain is from something like a fall or other traumatic event, talk with a healthcare provider rather than trying to DIY. Your provider will want to rule out more significant harm before advising you on the best route to pain relief.

If these or other exercises aren’t working for you, consulting with a physical therapist may help. They can tailor a program to your specific goals and needs.

Additionally, contact a provider if you’re experiencing symptoms of nerve damage, like tingling, weakness or pain that radiates down one or both legs.

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