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Best (& Worst) Back Pain Stretches and Exercises

Published May 23, 2017

Exercise is one of the best ways to get rid of back pain and keep it from returning. "There is an exercise for almost anyone with back pain," says Maria Mepham, a physical therapist at the Cleveland Clinic. But before you change into your workout gear, pull out your mat and hit the floor, be sure to check-in with your doctor or therapist — especially if you haven’t exercised much recently. This is how most people injure or re-injure themselves. You don’t want to be one of those. Be sure to make time for warm-up and cool-down before and after exercise and know your limits. One of the worst mistakes is trying to do too much too soon.

Supporting Your Back & Spine

Your core comprises muscles designed to help take care of your back and spine. With the help of your doctor or therapist, get specific insights on how to best train for your back based on the condition it is in. We’ve outlined a few healthy exercises below, but two we want to avoid are sit-ups and leg lifts, which appear good for you, but can further injure your back.

"Number one on my list of bad-for-the-back exercises is the full sit-up," says Mepham. This is the type of sit-up done with the hands behind the head and legs out straight, and it puts too much pressure on the lower back. You should also avoid straight leg lifts done with your back on the floor.”

Work it Out in the Water

Regular exercise can help treat back pain though people who suffer from back pain should choose low-impact exercises. When you switch from high-impact (i.e. jogging) to low impact (i.e. aqua aerobics) you decrease the amount of stress on your vertebrae and other joints.

“Water is a great way to get exercise without putting stress on the back. Studies have shown that exercises in the water that strengthen the leg, abdominal, and gluteal muscles or that stretch the hip, back, and leg muscles help with back pain. Water walking and swimming can also be beneficial,” said Jasper Sidhu, D.C.

Water is buoyant and puts less stress on the back and joints. The friction of the water creates a gentle resistance, which helps strengthen the muscles around the joints and back.

"Swimming could be the best aerobic back pain exercise," said Mepham. "Water provides both support and resistance. Almost any exercise done in the water is beneficial and safe for back pain."

Stretch Safely

Back pain is frequently caused by over- or underuse of the muscles in the back, stomach, hips, thighs, and neck. If you work at a desk, your chances of creating muscle tension that leads to back and neck pain increase. If you’re looking to target that achy and tight lower back, try a few of these stretches to open up your back and strengthen your muscles. For lower back relief, do these poses daily or as often as is feasible for you. Breathe deeply in and out of the nose while doing these poses.

  • Supine Hamstring Stretch. While lying on your back, bring your right knee into your chest and place a strap or rolled-up towel around the ball of your foot. Straighten your leg, extending it toward the ceiling. Press out through both heels. If your lower back feels tight, bend your left knee and place your foot on the ground. Hold for 3-5 minutes and then switch to the left leg for 3-5 minutes.
  • Two-Knee Twist. While lying on your back, bring your knees into your chest and stretch your arms out at a T formation. Exhale, lowering your knees to ground on the right of you. Keep both of your shoulders pressed down firmly. If the left shoulder lifts, lower your knees further away from the right arm. Hold for 1-2 minutes each side
  • Sphinx. While lying on your stomach, prop yourself up on your forearms with your elbows under your shoulders. Press down through your palms and the tops of your feet. Push your pubic bone forward. You will feel sensations through your lower back; breath through it. This position allows blood to flow into the lower back to promote healing. Hold for 1-3 minutes.
  • Legs Up the Wall. With your back on the floor and your buttocks against the wall, swing your feet and prop them at a 90-degree angle on the wall. This pose relaxes the muscles of the lower back and drains fluid from the feet and ankles back through the body. Hold for 5-10 minutes.
Last change: November 21, 2018