You want to maximize your performance and feel your best — but if you’ve got debilitating back pain, it can be hard to focus on anything else. The good news is, back pain relief is often just a few simple back stretches and exercises away.
There are a few back pain causes (like spasms, muscle strains, or disk issues), but the end result is the same — chronic pain that keeps you from living your best life.
Because back pain can be so debilitating, a lot of people turn to more serious interventions, like surgery or painkillers — but turns out, all you really need is a good stretch. “Most back pain can be resolved by doing regular exercises to keep muscles that support your spine strong and flexible,” says Fei Jiang, PT, DPT, OCS, at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, California. In fact, a recent study on back pain found that participants who followed a 12-week stretching regimen reported better back functioning, less pain, and a reduced need for pain medication.
Clearly, stretching works as an effective back pain treatment (and offers a more natural pain relief solution than other common pain interventions, like prescription painkillers or surgery). But why is stretching so effective? Which back pain stretches should you be doing to maximize results? And what are the best ways to incorporate back pain exercises into your daily routine to strengthen your core and keep pain at bay?
Why stretching works on back pain
Before we dive into the best back pain stretches, let’s talk about why stretching is such an effective treatment for back pain relief.
“Regular movement and stretching can help alleviate back pain by relaxing tight muscles and improving circulation to help nourish the spine,” says Jiang.
Not only will regular stretching help loosen the muscles and get rid of existing back pain, but it can also strengthen the back — and lower your chances of dealing with back pain in the future.
“Stretching of the back and legs can help maintain or improve movement for everyday functions. For example, being limber will help you lift objects off the floor or put on shoes without increased stress to the back,” says Jiang. “Additionally, physical activity [like stretching] can help increase back resilience, so that one can perform more activities without increased pain.”
Stretching is a one-two punch for treating back pain; if you’re currently dealing with back pain, it will get you back to tip-top shape in no time. And by incorporating regular stretching into your fitness routine, you’ll strengthen your back — making it less likely you’ll have to deal with an injury or chronic pain in the future.
When it comes to back pain, regular stretching is a win-win.
Best back pain stretches
So, now that you know why stretching is so effective for alleviating (and preventing) back pain, let’s talk about the how — a proven stretching routine that’s going to deliver real results for back pain.
Here are five stretches to incorporate into your daily routine to alleviate back pain and maximize performance:
Trunk rotation stretch
Stretch: Begin lying on the mat with knees bent. While maintaining upper back flat on the ground, rotate legs towards the floor until a stretch is felt. Repeat the stretch on the opposite side. Hold each stretch for 5 seconds, repeat 10 times.
Why it works: “This stretch helps improve mobility of the spine while relaxing the muscles on the sides of the trunk,” says Jiang.
Stretch: Begin on all fours. Sit your hips back while reaching out your arms forward until a mild stretch is felt in the back. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times.
Why it works: “This stretch helps improve mobility of the spine while relaxing the muscles of the lower back,” says Jiang.
Cat-camel back stretch
Stretch: Begin on all fours. Arch your back towards the ceiling and hold. Then arch your back towards the ground and hold. Hold each stretch for 5 seconds, repeat 10 times.
Why it works: “This stretch helps maintain mobility of the spine while strengthening the back and abdominal muscles,” says Jiang.
Stretch: Begin sitting on the floor with one leg straight, and the other bent. While maintaining a flat back, lean forward by hinging from the hip until a stretch is felt behind the thigh. Repeat on the other leg. Hold each stretch for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times.
Why it works: “When you spend a large portion of your time sitting], the back of the legs gets tight. This would cause pulling of the back when bending forward. Having flexible hamstrings allows for decreased stress in the back with bending and lifting activities,” says Jiang.
Hip flexor stretch
Stretch: Begin by kneeling on a mat. Lean forward towards the bent front knee until a stretch in front of the opposite thigh is felt. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, repeat 5 times.
Why it works: “When you spend a large portion of your time sitting], the front of the hips get tight. This would cause the hip muscles to pull the lower back forward in standing, thereby increasing stress in the lower back. Increased flexibility in hip flexors will help with decreased back pain in upright activities,” says Jiang.
For back pain relief, make stretching a daily routine
Stretching is one of the most effective ways to relieve back pain — if you’re consistent with your stretching routine. In order for stretching to work — and for you to get the most pain-busting benefits from your stretching routine — you need to stretch every day.
If you want to maximize the benefit of your back pain stretches, the key is to transform stretching into a “once-in-awhile” (or not at all!) practice into a non-negotiable part of your daily routine.
Here are some tips to incorporate stretching into your day-to-day routine (and kick back pain to the curb in the process):
Stretch when your eyes open in the morning…
If you want to make stretching a habit, make it the first thing you do in the morning — before anything else (like, you know…life) gets in the way.
Not only will stretching first thing in the AM make it easier to get into a regular stretching habit, but it will also increase blood flow to your muscles — which will deliver the boost of energy you need to get your day started.
…and before your head hits the pillow at night
Stretching right when you wake up is great — and so is stretching right before you go to sleep. Getting in a good stretch before your head hits the pillow will help alleviate any tension from the day, which will help relax your body and make it easier to drift off to sleep.
Bookend your day with stretching — morning and evening — to maximize the benefit.
Set reminders throughout the day
You’ll want to go through a full stretching routine in the AM and PM — but if you really want to maximize the pain-relieving benefits of stretching, you should also plan to take small stretch breaks throughout the day.
Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to get up and stretch every two hours or download an app like StretchClock that will send you alerts when it’s time to get up and stretch.
Back pain is a real drag — and it can keep you from feeling your best or performing at your highest level. But with the right stretches, you can build strength, alleviate back pain, and maximize your performance. So what are you waiting for? Get stretching!