If your lower back has been feeling insanely tight, listen up. Back issues plague couch potatoes, walkers and marathoners alike — largely because most of us spend our days sitting. “Working out for one to two hours cannot undo all the damage that is done during an eight-hour workday at a seated work station,” says physical therapist Emily Ohlin, P.T., a board-certified sports specialist at Kinetic Integration in Portland, Oregon.
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Sitting for any longer than 20 minutes causes muscles throughout the body, such as the hip flexors and hamstrings, to shorten, Ohlin says. And they don’t immediately lengthen back out again as soon as you walk into the gym, she explains. These tight muscles can throw off your posture and form during exercise, contributing to overuse of the lower back muscles.
“When we walk, run or squat, there is a good chance that our body will make up for the lack of extension in those areas by overextending from the low back,” says exercise physiologist and licensed massage practitioner Nikki Naab-Levy at Indigo Kenetics in Seattle. “This can be why healthy people experience low back pain during or after physical activity.” What’s more, if you’re constantly hunched over at the computer, the stress on your back muscles can throw things even further out of whack.
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The solution: Loosening things up. “Stretching strategically can minimize the negative effects of sitting and help maintain or even improve overall mobility,” Naab-Levy says. “Since tight hip flexors, short calves and stiff mid backs are some of the biggest culprits in general low back pain and tension, consciously opening these areas can reduce tension and stress to the low back.”
Try these five stretches from Naab-Levy to help relieve, and possibly even prevent, lower back tension due to tight muscles.
5 Lower Back Stretches You’ve Got to Try
1. Assisted Figure 4 Stretch
Get in this position to zero in on your hips, which can become locked after both sitting and long periods of use, like when you’re squatting or running.
How to: Lie on your back, feet planted so knees are at a 90-degree angle, with a rolled up towel under your hips (a). Cross your right ankle over your left knee and flex your right foot (b). Bring both legs in toward your body and pause when your legs are lined up directly over your hips (c). Keeping your head on the ground, thread your hands through your leg to grab behind your left thigh (d). Gently, extend your pubic bone toward your feet and pause when your lower back is just slightly curved. Your ribs should stay heavy on the ground (e). Breathe gently and hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side.
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2. Standing Hip-Flexor Stretch
This move targets the hip flexors and abdominal muscles, which can become shortened from sitting or from exercises like cycling and running.
How to: Stand to the side of a wall or chair with the left side of your body facing the chair (a). Step your right leg back, keeping the right heel off of the ground. Gently tuck your pelvis so that the curve in your lower back flattens and your pubic bone pushes forward (b). Then, place your left hand on the wall or chair and reach your right arm overhead (c). Bend to the left and pause when you feel a stretch through your right abdominal muscles and your right hip flexor. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and then repeat on the opposite side.
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3. Tail Wags
Improve mobility in your mid back with this easy exercise you can do to loosen up your body. Better mid back mobility means your low back won’t have to work as hard when you’re doing things like walking or strength training.
How to: Get on your hands and knees, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Your spine should be long and your lower back should be slightly concave (a). Keeping your knees on the ground, lift your left foot in the air, and slowly swing your foot to the left as you look over your left shoulder. You should feel a gentle stretch along the right side of your torso (b). Pause, then slowly swing your left foot to the right and look over your right shoulder. Repeat with the right foot lifted.
4. Active Calf and Hamstring Stretch
Many of us are members of the tight hamstring and calves club. Restrictions in these tissues can create compensatory movement patterns that create added stress in the low back. Note: Since you are trying to isolate the hamstring and calf in this stretch, do not move your lifted leg beyond 90 degrees, even if you have the flexibility to do so. Once the leg goes past a certain point, the stretch will pull the lower back, which isn’t the goal here.
How to: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Your hips should be level on the floor and you should have a small curve in your lower back (a). Lift your left leg off the ground, keeping knee bent to a 90 degree angle and foot flexed (b). Then, slowly bend and straighten your left knee as far as you can without pain, reaching your heel towards the ceiling (c). Perform six to eight reps. On the final rep, hold your left leg in the extended position and pause briefly. Repeat on the opposite side.
5. Passive Extension
Counteract the stress placed on the spine due to slouching with this stretch that allows you to lie back and relax.
How to: Roll up a towel and place it under the bottom third of your shoulder blades, then like back with knees bent to 90 degrees, feet flat (a). Your arms can be in a variety of positions, including by your sides, or reaching over your head with bent or straight elbows (b). Gently tuck your pelvis, so that your lower back presses gently into the floor (c). If you feel any strain in your neck, place a small pillow or folded towel under your head. Relax into the stretch, breathe, and hold the position for up to one minute.
Originally posted August 2015. Updated April 2016.