Exercises and Stretches for Lower Back Pain Relief

By Chesney Fowler, MD
Medically reviewed
December 3, 2019

Lower back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide. 31 million Americans report low back pain at any given time. $50 billion is spent each year in America on back pain. Discomfort in your back can be painful, but finding relief is possible with the right stretches and exercises for lower back pain. While it might seem tempting to lay on the couch or curl up in bed if your back is bothering you, it’s important to stay active and keep moving. In fact, bed rest can make your back pain worse.

Research now recommends avoiding bed rest altogether, and staying in bed longer than 48 hours is linked to delayed recovery. Keeping yourself mobile with exercises to strengthen the lower back can be integral to your improvement. Learn how the correct lower back stretches and exercises to help lower back pain can help relieve your symptoms.

Types of Back Pain

There are two different ways to classify back pain. First, by whether the pain is acute or chronic, and second by what the pain symptoms are. We’ll briefly go over both of these now.

Acute or chronic

Acute back pain is usually caused by lower back strains or sprains and can often be remedied with home treatment in 4-12 weeks. This can happen either over time, or from sudden movement that puts stress on the back, such as lifting heavy furniture.

Chronic back pain lasts for at least three months, and typically involves dysfunction with the joints, vertebral discs, or nerves.

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Classifications of pain symptoms

There are three different classifications of back pain:

  • Radicular pain: Radicular pain is characterized by feeling like an electric shock. It is caused by compression or inflammation to a spinal nerve root. This type of pain is also known as radiculopathy or sciatica.
  • Axial pain: Axial pain symptoms are usually focused on a single spot. Its symptoms can range from dull to sharp, and constant to intermittent. It usually contributes to acute back pain.
  • Referred pain: Referred pain is not confined to just one area. It can feel achy and/or dull, and radiates through the body, such as when a degenerative disc issue causes pain in the thigh.

Stretches and Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Lower back exercises and stretches focus on increasing your lower back’s flexibility and strength. These can be done daily, in conjunction with other low-impact activities that are safe for your back, such as walking and swimming. Your symptoms should begin to decrease in about two weeks, and completely abate in four to six weeks.

Try to aim to do both the stretches and strengthening exercises three times per week. Lower back exercises for women and men are effective and won’t take much time to complete at home. Try these stretches and exercises for lower back pain relief.


Hamstring stretch:

Stretching the hamstrings aids in releasing the muscles in your posterior thighs, which connect to some muscles in your lower back. To do this stretch, you’ll need a flex band or towel.

  • Lay on your back with one knee bent and your foot on the floor.
  • Place the flex band or towel on the ball of your other foot.
  • Pull the towel or band gently, lengthening your leg up toward the ceiling.
  • Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds. Do each leg 5 times.

Bottom to heels stretch:

This stretch helps to lengthen the muscles in your lower spine.

  • Kneel in a quadruped position, with your palms underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips.
  • Slowly move your hips to your heels in a child’s pose position. Hold for a breath and then come back to your starting position.
  • Repeat 8-10 times.

Knee rolls:

This gentle side to side movement will help you release tight musculature in the lumbar spine.

  • Lay on your back with knees bent and arms out to the sides.
  • With control, roll your knees to one side, keeping your shoulders flat on the ground. Hold for a breath, and come back to your starting position.
  • Do 8-10 times, alternating sides.

NOTE: Take care to avoid toe touches. The excessive bending can increase sciatica and place stress on the spinal discs.


Bird dogs:

Bird dogs encourage spinal stabilization and balance.

  • Kneel in a quadruped position, with your palms underneath your shoulders and knees underneath your hips.
  • With control, lift and extend a leg while keeping your hips still. Hold for five seconds, and switch legs.
  • To challenge yourself, try straightening the leg completely, or lifting and extending your opposite arm with the leg.
  • Repeat 8-12 times per side.

Pelvic tilts:

Pelvic tilts can help you strengthen your pelvis and core muscles.

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor.
  • Engage your abdominals and tuck your tailbone underneath you, rocking your hips and pressing your spine further into the floor.
  • Hold for 10 seconds and release. Do 8-12 times.

Glute bridges:

Glute bridges help strengthen your glutes, hamstrings, core, and lower back.

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor.
  • Engage your abs, squeeze your glutes, and lift your pelvis in the air, so that your knees, hips, and shoulders make one long line.
  • Hold for five seconds, and slowly come back down. Do 8-12 repetitions.

Exercises to avoid

If you’re experiencing lower back pain, you should avoid or take a break from the following exercises:

  • Sports that require a lot of rotation, such as tennis
  • High impact activities, like running
  • Heavy lifting, which can place a lot of stress on the spine

You should also avoid the following exercises:

  • Situps: Most people use their hip muscles instead of their abdominals. They can also put pressure on the spine.
  • Leg lifts: Lying supine and trying to support both legs in the air can place unwanted pressure on your lower back.

Stretches and Exercises for Upper Back Pain

Upper back stretches and exercises will help you release tension and become stronger in the upper back area. As with the lower back exercises, these should be done three times per week.


Thoracic rotation:

This stretch helps to release the muscles of your thoracic spine, or midback.

  • Lay on your side, with your knees bent and arms stacked in front of you, palms together.
  • Lift your top arm to the ceiling and over to the side. Rotate your head and upper back with it.
  • Hold for three breaths, and come back to your starting position. Do 8-10 repetitions on each side.

Pec stretch foam roller:

Tight shoulders can cause your upper back to tighten and shoulders to round forward. To release them, you can lay on top of a foam roller with your arms out to your sides.

  • Make sure your pelvis, spine, and head are fully supported on the roller.
  • Hold for about 30 seconds.

Shoulder rolls:

Shoulder rolls can help you release your shoulders and upper back.

  • Stand with your arms down at your sides.
  • Roll your shoulders backwards five times, shrugging them up to your shoulders and then down your back. Reverse direction, and roll them five times forward.
  • Repeat 2-3 times.

Avoid over-arching the back during any upper back stretches. This can place stress on your entire spine.


Scapular squeezes:

Scapular squeezes help strengthen the shoulder blades and mid-back.

  • Stand with your arms by your sides. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Hold for 10 seconds and release. Do 8-10 repetitions.


This move helps to work the endurance muscles of your upper (and lower) back.

  • Lay prone on your stomach with your arms and legs straight in front of you.
  • Engage your abdominals, and lift your arms and legs up.
  • Hold for a breath, and slowly lower. Do 8-10 repetitions.

Lat pulldowns:

Strengthening your latissimus dorsi muscles can help you improve your range of motion, prevent injury, and build upper-body strength. Try this flex band strengthening move.

  • Kneel or stand under a flex band that is secured overhead.
  • Pull down on the band until your arms are parallel to the floor.
  • Hold for a breath, squeezing your lats. Complete 10-12 repetitions.

Avoid jerky or fast motions that could put stress on the upper back.

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Tips for Preventing Back Pain

Back pain can be preventable. Here are a few tips (in addition to doing the stretches and exercises above) to help you avoid back pain:

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight can strain your muscles. Maintaining a healthy weight for your body can allow you to move with less effort.
  • Work on your posture: Poor posture puts stress on your muscles and spine. Sitting and standing with good posture will reduce the amount of load you place on your body.
  • Lift with care: Some back injuries can occur from lifting heavy objects with improper form. If you need to lift something that’s heavy, make sure to do so with bent knees so your legs do the work, not your back.
  • Take vitamin D: This vitamin helps with bone strength, as it helps your body absorb calcium. Lower back pain can be a sign of a deficiency of vitamin D, with numerous studies showing a relationship between the two.

When to See a Doctor

You should see a doctor immediately if you exhibit any of the following symptoms, since they can be indicative of a serious medical issue:

  • Your back pain is accompanied by a fever.
  • Your pain follows an acute injury to the spine.
  • You lose control of your bladder and/or bowels.
  • You have known cancer and you develop back pain.

How K Health Can Help

K Health can help you quickly determine whether the back pain symptoms you may be experiencing merit a doctor’s visit. Our doctors are also available to help you learn how to ease your symptoms and what you can do to help prevent them in the future.

Want to know how to heal your back pain quickly?

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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chesney Fowler, MD

Dr. Fowler is an emergency medicine physician and received her MD from George Washington University. She completed her residency in emergency medicine at Christiana Care Health System. In addition to her work at K Health, Dr. Fowler is a practicing emergency medicine physician in Washington, DC.