How to Stretch Your Lower Back the Right Way

Photograph: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

If you're searching for “how to stretch lower back,” you probably already know that sitting all day is killing you. If having your butt glued to a chair is something you can’t escape, you know first-hand that it can be especially murderous on the lower back. Knowing how to stretch your lower back is key for both preventing and alleviating pain—especially because sitting all day is, in our opinion, the least-cool way to injure your body.

If you want to know how to relax tight muscles in the lower back and how to stretch lower back pain, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading for lower back stretches straight from physical therapists that you can do at home.

Why Stretching the Lower Back Is Important

Take it from a physical therapist who treats people with chronic injuries: If you don’t take time to stretch your lower back, you’re going to regret it. “Stretching your lower back is really, really important. If you sit for a prolonged amount of time at a desk or have a long commute and don’t stretch your back, you’re going to feel stiff over time,” says Andy Fata-Chan, PT, DPT, the founder of Movement Physical Therapy and Performance.

Dr. Fata-Chan says he often sees guys at his clinic who spend all day sitting and then head to the gym. “If they don’t do any mobility work, they end up loading stiff joints, which is a recipe for disaster,” he says, adding that this can lead to joint pain.

Georgiy Brusovanik, MD, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Miami, emphasizes that knowing how to stretch the lower back is important for everyone—whether you sit all day or not. “The price we pay for being bipedal—using two legs to walk—is that we load the lumbar discs and over time, this causes them to degenerate,” he says. “This means that as we age, we start to lean forward more.” This, he says, puts more pressure on the lower back.

If you want to avoid being a living caricature of a hunched-over old person, Dr. Brusovanik says you have to prioritize lower back stretches. And he means now, even if you don’t get mail from the AARP yet. “Stretching the lower back counteracts some of the [postural] changes that come with age and gives your back muscles more breathing room,” he says.

Both doctors emphasize that whether you currently have lower back pain or not, it’s important to stretch it out. If you don’t, you can plan on having to see your doctor about it in the future. “Data shows us that between 75% and 85% of people experience back pain at some point. It’s a very common problem to have,” says Tony Matoska, PT, DPT, CMPT, a physical therapist and spine specialist at Athletico Physical Therapy.

Besides helping prevent pain, Dr. Chan-Fata says that regularly doing lower back stretches can make you a better athlete. “If you watch sports, including football or basketball, you’ll notice that the spine is always moving. The better the spine and ribs can move, the better you are at changing positions and making cuts,” he says.

Motivated to prioritize some stretches now? In terms of when to do lower back stretches, Dr. Matoska says there isn’t one specific time that’s scientifically proven to be best; no matter when you do them, your body will benefit. That said, he likes the idea of doing them before working out, as a way to warm up the body before exercising.

Dr. Matoska says even spending just 5 to 10 minutes a day stretching the lower back is enough. He also recommends spending a few minutes stretching the lower back any time your back feels stiff or you’ve just spent a prolonged time sitting, like at your desk or after a long flight.

The below moves are lower back stretches anyone can do right at home with no equipment.

How To Stretch Lower Back: 10 Moves To Do At Home

1. Baby cobra

Dr. Matoska says that baby cobra is a great lower back stretch to start with. It helps with spinal flexibility and mobility while strengthening the lower back muscles.

1. Lie down on your stomach and place your palms on the floor.. Keep your elbows close to your chest.

2. Press your palms into the floor and lift your chest up. Hold for as long as it feels comfortable before coming back to the starting position and gently moving out of the stretch. For a deeper stretch, Dr. Matoska says the stretch can be done by keeping your palms flat on the ground and straightening your arms.

2. Standing lumbar extension

A standing lumbar extension is another light lower back move that Dr. Matoska recommends starting with. If you’re wondering how to relieve tension in the lower back, this stretch can help.

1. Stand up straight. Put your hands on your hips or waist.

2. Gently extend backward until you get that hurts-so-good feeling.

3. Hold for 10 seconds and then come back to the starting position.

3. Knees-to-chest stretch

This move, recommended by Dr. Matoska, also helps relieve tension in the lower back and also helps improve the hips’ range of motion.

1. Lie on your back. Bring your knees to your chest.

2. Wrap your arms around your legs.

3. Extend one leg out straight while still keeping your other knee close to your chest. Hold for 10 seconds before bringing the extended leg back to your chest and then extending the other leg.

4. Doorway stretch

To stretch the hips as well as the side of the back, Dr. Chan-Fata recommends the doorway stretch, which helps strengthen the back and encourages maintaining proper posture.

1. Stand in a doorway. Cross one leg over the other leg.

2. Reach toward the side with the leg that’s in front.

3. Push onto the doorway. Hold for between 10 and 30 seconds. Then, switch legs to stretch out the other side of your back.

5. Dynamic side plank

Once you’re ready for a lower back stretch with a little more intensity, Dr. Chan-Fata recommends giving this one a try. It strengthens the core, which helps prevent lower back pain by contributing to proper posture and putting less strain on the lower back. The dynamic side plank is also a good way to target your left lower back muscles and right lower back muscles.

1. Lie on your right side, resting your right elbow on the floor directly under your shoulder. Keep your legs straight, stacking one on top of the other.

2. While engaging your core, lift your hips off the ground. Slowly lower them back down.

3. Do 5 to 10 reps. Then, switch sides.

6. Medicine ball hip hinge

If you play golf, tennis or any other sport that requires continuously twisting the lower back, Dr. Chan-Fata recommends this hip hing rotation, which requires a medicine ball.

1. Stand up straight with your legs hip-distance apart. Wrap your arms around the medicine ball.

2. Sit your hips back, bend your knees slightly and lean your torso slightly forward, like you’re doing a deadlift.

3. Rotate to the left. Hold for a few seconds. Then, rotate to the right and hold for a few seconds.

7. Elevated pigeon stretch

If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, there’s a good chance that you’re familiar with pigeon pose. Dr. Chan-Fata says the elevated pigeon stretch is a more comfortable version of it—especially if you’re tall—and is a great way to stretch the back of the hips and lower back at the same time. Since this move targets the hip flexors, glutes, and piriformis muscles, it helps improve mobility in the hips while strengthening the lower back. If you’re currently experiencing lower back pain or soreness, pigeon pose can give some relief.

1. Stand in front of a raised surface, such as a workout bench, box or bed. Grab it for support with both hands and place your ankle on top of the surface with your knee bent at 90 degrees.

2. Extend your back leg straight behind you, standing on your toes.

3. Keep your hips square to the front and your back straight. Lean forward. If it feels good to do so, gently sway back and forth. After between 30 and 60 seconds, gently come out of the stretch and repeat with the other leg.

8. Windshield wipers stretch

Dr. Matoska says this is another good stretch for hip mobility as well as loosening the lower back.

1. Lie down on your back. Bend your knees. Spread your feet far apart, while still feeling comfortable.

2. Bend your knees to one side of the body. Then, slowly bend them in the other direction to the other side of the body. Continue gently moving them back-and-forth for between 30 seconds and one minute.

9. Legs-up-the-wall stretch

If you had a long day of traveling, Dr. Chan-Fata recommends doing this lower back stretch when you get to your hotel or home. It targets the hamstrings as well as the lower back.

1. Lie on your back. Bend your knees at 90 degrees and place your feet flat against a wall.

2. Lift your hips an inch off the floor. This pulls the pelvis backwards, which helps relieve a sore back and tight hamstrings. Hold for 30 seconds before coming out of the stretch.

10. Side stretch

A side stretch is a gentle lower back stretch, making it a great one to wind your stretching routine down with. “It helps stretch the left lower back and right lower back,” Dr. Matoska says.

1. Stand up with your feet hip-distance apart.

2. Lift your left arm up overhead and reach to the right side. Your torso should bend to the right side too.

3. Hold for a few seconds. Come back to the starting position and repeat on the other side, reaching up with your right arm. Do five to 10 reps.

Important Tips to Keep In Mind and When To See a Doctor

There’s a difference between hurts-so-good and actual pain, an important distinction all three experts say is important to keep in mind when doing lower back stretches. “If something doesn’t feel right, stop,” Dr. Matoska says.

It’s also important to know the difference between soreness and pain. Dr. Brusovanik explains that muscle soreness after a workout or after spending a long time sitting is different from waking up with pain or having pain that is getting in the way of you living your daily life. He adds that lower back pain can also extend through the thighs, hamstrings, and calves. If you’re experiencing lower back pain regularly, Dr. Matoska says to see a physical therapist. “A doctor can prescribe pain medication, but a physical therapist has more specialized training in this area and more time to spend working with you to treat the pain,” he says.

Dr. Brusovanik says that one common misconception people have is if you are experiencing lower back pain or soreness, you should stop all kinds of physical activity. Movement, he says, actually helps relieve pain. Seeing a physical therapist can be helpful for learning what types of movements can help alleviate lower back pain or soreness instead of exacerbating it. Of course, the above stretches are good ways to move your body too.

Whether you’re battling lower back soreness now or want to make sure it’s something you never have to deal with, the above moves can help. It’s important to be proactive because when it comes to your health, no one has your back (no pun intended) quite like you do. When in doubt, stretch it out.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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