4 Stretches You Probably Didn’t Know Could Ease Back Pain
Relieve nagging back discomfort and tension by giving these tight spots some love.
Lower back pain is, unfortunately, extremely common and can stem from a wide array of factors, which can make pinpointing the best remedy for you difficult and frustrating. One of the leading sources for back pain? Long periods of sitting—especially with poor posture that exacerbates disc pressure, muscle stiffness, and other back-related bummers. Don’t feel too bad: Most people are guilty of sitting for too long in a chair, slouching on the couch, or working in bed (maybe even more so during quarantine). And this is very likely why most people encounter at least one back issue at some point in life.
One common misconception about back pain is the assumption that stretches that target the back specifically are the best or only way to find relief. Sometimes it's true, and gentle back stretches for strength and mobility are absolutely important (we have some fabulous moves for that here); but sometimes it’s actually tightness, stiffness, or misalignment in nearby joints or muscle groups contributing to back discomfort. For example, sitting for long periods of time—driving for hours, working at a desk, studying at the kitchen table—can tighten and shorten the hip flexors and make them less mobile. Not only will you feel direct stiffness in your hips, but this also weakens the glutes and pulls the pelvis and ribcage down, causing indirect strain on the lower back.
“When the hips stop moving as much, not only do we lose range of motion in the hip joints, but the muscles surrounding the hips get very tight as well,” says Jennifer Esquer, PT, DPT, a physical therapist, influencer, and creator of The Mobility Method and The Optimal Body. “Without our ability to move well through the hips, the low back ends up picking up the slack and taking on a lot more pressure than it’s normally used to.”
To help take a load off your aching back, Esquer shares four effective stretches targeting tight hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, and adductors (inner thigh muslces) that could secretly be fueling your back pain.
You can do each of the below moves at home—even in the middle of a crazy work day—as often as everyday, if needed. Read the instructions here, then follow along with Esquer in the demo video above for helpful visuals and cues.
“This exercise [gets] deeper into the hip capsules,” Esquer says. “It helps to improve hip external and internal range of motion within the hip joints.”
(A) Sit on the floor with your right leg directly in front and bent 90 degrees at the knee and your left leg to the side and also bent to 90 degrees.
The outside shin and thigh of your right leg should lie flat on the ground and the inside shin and thigh of your left leg should lie flat on the ground (Check out Esquer’s video demo for a clear visual)
(B) Keep the spine straight and start to lean forward over the right leg, careful not to round the spine
(C) Pause when you feel a good stretch in the right glute and hold there for one to two minutes while breathing slowly (you may also feel a stretch in the left inner thigh and hip).
(D) Gently rotate your torso to the left to stretch the back leg, trying to push your left butt cheek down to the floor (only go to what is tolerable for your body!).
(E) Hold for one to two minutes while breathing slowly
“This second exercise targets the hamstring and a bit of the sciatic nerve through some flossing and tensioning techniques,” Esquer says. This move is what’s called a nerve glide: Instead of holding the stretch, focus on moving the leg in a slow, steady motion.
(A) Lying on your back, bring one leg up and hold it at the back of the knee (arms should be extended straight, not bent).
(B) Extend the leg straight, keeping foot and toes flexed toward the face as much as is tolerable (i.e., don’t point your toes).
(C) Don’t hold the stretch, but keep bending and straightening the knee in a steady motion, back and forth, 10 to 15 times.
(D) If flexing the toe toward the is too intense, modify by pointing the toe toward the ceiling.
(E) Repeat on the opposite leg.
This dynamic stretch is a great way to get at those adductors, or inner thighs. You'll loosen tension and create mobility, plus get a bit of arm and ab activation, too.
(A) Start on all fours and extend one leg out to the side.
(B) Maintaining anterior pelvic tilt (don’t tuck your tailbone under), slowly send the hips backward and then return to starting position.
(C) Keep your back in the same position the whole time: Don’t let hips tilt to the side or back curve (pretend there’s a glass of water on your tailbone!).
(D) Rock back and forth 10 to 15 times.
The couch stretch is a great quad, hip, and even core stretch. It’s similar to a standing quad stretch, where you’d flex the knee up behind you and hold your foot—except it can open and release even more muscles, more deeply, at once. It can be an intense stretch, so listen to your body and do what’s tolerable.
(A) Lay a pillow (or two) on the floor in front of the couch
(B) With the left leg in a lunge position in front for support, place the right knee on the pillow, as close to the couch as possible, and prop the right foot up and behind you on the edge of the couch.
(C) Once the right leg is on the couch, maintain a good lunge position by gently tucking the tailbone under and squeezing the glutes.
(D) Breathe and hold for one to two minutes.
(E) Repeat on the opposite side.