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Back Stretching and Exercises for Better Health

by Taylor Tollison

Having a bad back can be a debilitating thing to experience. But whether it’s a mere annoyance or a severe issue, having a healthy back is important. Back health requires a comprehensive lifestyle strategy more than any focusing on any one thing, like stretching.

When we talk about back health there is a direct and indirect approach. The direct approach deals with back problems at the source of the pain. So if you have a degenerative disk in your back, a direct approach would deal with the degenerative disk directly (I am not saying this is how it should be done just an example). The indirect approach deals with the secondary problems that put the back out of whack. For example, when tires consistently wear unevenly you wouldn’t fix the issue by adding more rubber to the tires. You would address the underlying issue that is causing the uneven wear.

Back pain is a common occurrence that affects 8 in 10 people at some point in their lives. (1) How you approach fixing a back problem depends on the problem. Here are some problems that can cause back pain:

backMechanical problems: Possibly the most common mechanical problem is when the disks of the back break down with age. When they break down they lose their ability to cushion. Other mechanical causes of back pain include spasms, tension etc.

Injuries: Injuries such as sprains and fractures can also cause back spasms. Sprains are tears in the ligaments that support the spine, and can happen because of lifting with poor technique. (3)

Rotational Issues: Shirley Sharmann has received some nice accolades from the personal training arena, especially from Mike Boyle, in the last year or so with her thoughts on the rotation of the upper body. Shirley Sharmann stated two interesting facts: 1) “during most daily activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk.” 2) “A large percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at the L5-S1 level.” (2) More on this later.

Another key element in back health is technique in everyday life. Technique is a broad term I apply to everyday work, sports, exercise and more. In our everyday life we deal with picking up objects, sittingtechnique with good or bad posture and other things that affect our overall back health. If we can control it we should control it.

Exercise is used to be healthy, reduce injury and improve performance. But some, either through lack of understanding or irresponsible implementation, exercise with poor technique. For example, when squatting do you have a rounded back? If you do, the added stress put on your lower back is putting your “back health” in jeopardy. Your exercise program should never be the direct cause of injury.

Muscles of the back

Before we get into the stretching and exercises for the back let’s discuss some anatomy.The spine is divided up into 4 sections:

Cervical Spine- Neck

Thoracic Spine- Upper Back

Lumbar Spine-Lower back

Sacral Region- Bottom of the Spine

Some Basic Goals of a Healthy Back Exercise Program

I am not a doctor and entire books have been written on the subject of healthy backs. So what I present here are concepts and ideas as well as specific exercises for a better back. In no way is this all emcompassing. With that as a background here are some exercise goals and tips for a healthy back:

Reduce trunk rotation through Core Stability. Implement a core program that will train comprehensively those muscles that will enable the trunk to minimize rotation. Crunches and sit ups alone will not do it. Train the muscles so that they provide good stability to lock in the core.

Its important to maintain or obtain good flexibility and activation in other muscles that if tight could cause back pain. A possible mechinism in causing low back pain in everyday people is lack of hip mobility. Part of your stretching routine should include the hip muscles. My suggestion is to stretch all the muscles that attach to the spine or pelvis area where if they are tight might cause pain to the back. Stretch these muscles: hamstring, IT Band Stretching (One study showed that it is important to consider the IT band tightness as a possible cause of low back pain), Psoas (Hip Flexor), Adductor (groin), Abductor muscles, All the quad muscles.

For ideas on how to stretch each of these click the links above. Stretch the back muscles. Stretching and Exercises for a healthy back Again, this is not meant to be an all emcompassing list of exercises. Pelvic Tilt The pelvic tilt exercise helps strengthen your stomach, buttocks, and thigh muscles as well as stretching the lower back muscles. This exercise flattens the back and then lets the back return to its natural curve.

1. Lie flat on your back on a hard surface with head resting on a small pillow.

2. Bend knees and hips so both feet are flat on the hard surface.

3. Push lower back flat to the floor. Make sure your back is flat by trying to place your hand between your back and the hard surface. When done correctly, your hand shouldn't fit.

4 Tighten your "stomach" (abdominal) muscles.

5. Tighten your "buttock" (gluteal) muscles.

6. Lift your hips from the floor and tilt your whole pelvis forward while keeping your back flat against the hard surface.

7. Hold for a count of ten.

8. Slowly relax.

9. Repeat this exercise ten times.

Lumbar Stretches

When lumbar muscles are tight, they become shortened and interfere with bending, twisting, and pelvic rotating. Keeping these muscles stretched also helps keep the natural curves of the spine in shape.

1. Lie flat on your back on a floor or hard surface with your head on a small pillow.

2. Bend your knees and slowly bring them toward your chest. Reach your hand behind your thigh to help bend the knees. (Note: pulling from the top of the knee isn't good for the knees.) Don't bounce.

3. Keep your head on the pillow and elevate your butt as high as possible off the floor. Your knees should be as close as possible to your chest.

4. Hold this position for a count of 10. Relax, but continue to hold onto your thighs.

5. Again, pull knees as close to your chest as possible. Do this exercise 10 times.

Hamstring Stretches

When hamstring muscles are shortened or tight they interfere with bending. You can stretch them by doing the following exercise. Begin by lying on a hard surface.

1. With your knees close to the chest but in a relaxed position, slowly extend one leg toward the ceiling.

2. Flex your foot and push your heel upward to feel the hamstring muscles stretch. Count to 10 while holding this position.

3. Now bend this leg and bring the knee back toward your chest, while extending the other leg. Repeat Step 2 with the other leg.

4. Repeat this exercise 10 times, one leg at a time.

5. When you are done, bring both knees toward your chest and roll to the side as a safe way of returning to a standing position.

Reverse Sit-ups

Reverse Situps Many people have weak abdominal ("stomach") muscles and tend to arch their backs while doing situps. That's why we recommend "reverse" situps to strengthen the three groups of muscles that make the abdomen strong.

1. Sit on the floor in an upright position with knees bent.

2. Lock hands together behind your head and hold your arms out to your side.

3. Tighten your stomach muscles and slowly lean back about 15 degrees, which is like going from 12 noon to 11 o'clock on a timepiece. Hold this position for a count of 5, and 10 if you can.

4. Slowly lean back to the 10 o'clock position. Hold and count again.

5. Return slowly to an upright position.

6. Repeat the whole exercise.

Stretching Positions to Avoid

In many stretching situations we’ve encountered through the years we find ourself bending our back significantly to stretching. Bending over to touch your toes is a great example of what I am talking about. But especially if you have a bad back this action can put pressure on the back area. So instead of bending over to touch your toes for a hamstring stretch, lay on the ground, put a rope around your foot and gently pull your foot up toward the ceiling. This will isolate the hamstring and reduce stress on the back.  Use this for any stretches that require you to arch your back in a bending motion.

Chronic Back Pain and Massage

If you suffer from chronic back pain look no further than massage therapy.  One study showed massage therapy an effective treatment for chronic back pain with lasting benefits for up to six months. (4)


This is a decent list of back stretching exercises to get your started for better back health. Remember, back stretching is an all empompassing approach.  Don't rely on good technique then forget about core stability. In the long run you'll better for it.

  1. NIH: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
  2. Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes p.71
  4. A comparison of the effects of 2 types of massage and usual care on chronic low back pain: a randomized, controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 2011 Jul 5;155(1):1-9.  Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Kahn J, Wellman R, Cook AJ, Johnson E, Erro J, Delaney K, Deyo RA.