Exercises and Stretches for Lower Back Pain

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Daniel Pavlik Jr DC

Aug 24, 2020

Whatever the cause, lower back pain can be a miserable condition. Back pain is one of the main reasons people visit their doctors and is also a common cause of missed work. Chronic lower back pain can even result in long-term disability.

While some lower back pain will need to be treated with surgery, medication, or other forms of intervention, many cases improve with exercise. It can be challenging to exercise with lower back pain since any physical activity will initially tend to make the symptoms feel worse. With the right exercises, however, lower back pain may improve significantly. Many of the exercises that can help back pain may be done while seated. Some exercises can even be done without getting out of bed, which is a plus for back pain sufferers.

Knee-to-chest stretches

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor or your mattress. Draw your right knee up to your chest, hold for a few seconds, then gently lower your leg. Repeat the exercise with your left knee. Continue the exercise using alternate legs for 10-15 repetitions. It’s okay if you can’t lift your knee very far or can’t manage 10 repetitions at first. Just keep trying twice a day.

Spinal twists

Start in the same position as for knee-to-chest stretches. Twist your knees sideways, holding them together, as if you were trying to press the side of your leg against the floor. While you do this, twist your head in the opposite direction to your knees. Hold for 10 deep breaths, then repeat with your head and knees in the other direction. This is an excellent exercise if you find your back pain is worse when standing still, for example, while doing the dishes.

Cat-cow stretches

This exercise is usually done on your hands and knees. If that’s not possible, you can use a seated variation. For the ‘cat’ portion of the exercise, arch your back outwards like an angry cat. Hold for a few breaths and then relax. For the ‘cow’ stretch, arch your back inwards, pulling your shoulders back and sticking your tummy out. Hold for a few breaths and relax again. Repeat alternating cat-cow stretches for ten minutes or so.

Press-up back extensions

It’s not recommended that you perform conventional press-ups if you have back issues. These press-up back extensions, however, can help resolve lower back pain if done correctly. Lie on your stomach with your legs straight. Place your hands palm-down on the floor, directly beneath each shoulder. Press up, lifting your upper body but not attempting to lift your legs. Hold this pose for as long as you can. You may find it helpful to place your arms underneath you with your elbows flexed to support your body, instead of holding yourself up with your arms straight.

Bird-dog stretches

This exercise is done on all fours. Get on your hands and knees, then gently stretch one leg out behind you. Try to lift your leg so that it’s sticking straight out at the back, in a line with your back and shoulders. Hold for a few breaths, then lower your leg and repeat with the other leg. Try to do this for eight to 12 repetitions. It would be best if you aimed to hold each leg up for at least five seconds at a time; try to extend the amount of time you can hold it every time you do this exercise. Note that there are some exercises you should avoid if you have lower back pain, particularly toe-touches and sit-ups. Instead of helping with your pain, these can make it worse. Cut them out of your exercise routine and substitute more back-friendly moves instead. If you’re planning to start an exercise routine for your back pain, talk it over with a medical professional. Your doctor may recommend exercises that are better suited for your specific case and can tell you which ones you need to avoid.

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