6 stretches and exercises that help with lower back pain

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi
When lower back pain strikes, it can be miserable. Try these simple exercises to help you find relief from the comfort of your home

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When your lower back is hurting, simple activities like sitting or moving around can be uncomfortable. That’s when you notice how important the lower back really is – it’s switched on and working in most of our daily activities.

Most of us experience back pain at some point, whether it’s related to an injury, bad posture, or stress. Lower back pain is the most common type, but regular stretching and exercise can both prevent and ease the pain.

What causes lower back pain?

At least 4 in 5 visits to the doctor for lower back pain have no obvious cause. This is known as non-specific lower back pain, and it usually gets better with time.

Common triggers for an episode of back pain include:

  • A strain or sprain from lifting something awkwardly
  • Bad posture, especially when sitting for long periods
  • Stress and tension, which can make existing back pain worse

Occasionally lower back pain is caused by a medical condition. A slipped disc is when your spine has moved out of place and usually causes severe pain. This can lead to another type of pain called sciatica. Sciatica can also be triggered by infections, osteoarthritis, or stenosis.

Lower back pain in women

There are specific causes of lower back pain that affect women:

Endometriosis – a condition where tissue from the uterus starts growing on the ovaries, bowels or pelvis, which can cause mild to severe pain

Ovarian cyst – usually harmless, these cysts only cause pain if they have grown very large or ruptured, which is when they need treating

Menopause – lower levels of hormones like estrogen after menopause may affect pain sensitivity and can contribute to changes in the spine, leaving you more prone to injury

Period pain – it’s not fully understood why menstruation can cause back pain, but it’s a common symptom and may relate to hormone changes

Why is lower back pain so common?

The lower part of your back supports the weight of your upper body, both when you’re moving and sitting. Over time, stress to the area can cause general wear and tear, or injuries to your spine or muscles.

Your body weight is also an important stress factor for your lower back. If you’re heavier, it means there is more strain on your spine and your muscles have to work harder to stay balanced and support your posture. One study found that although long periods of sitting don’t cause back pain on their own, having a higher body mass index (BMI) could lead to symptoms.

Why having a strong back is important

When your muscles are in good shape, they support the joints and encourage a normal range of motion. When it comes to the lower back, this includes your balance and posture.

A stronger back helps us lift things and walk, and supports our posture during long hours spent sitting. Not only does this protect against injuries or falls, but a large-scale study found that strength training reduces aches and pains.

It’s important to include other muscles involved in core strength, like your glutes, which are the large buttock muscles that power lots of movements.

6 stretches and exercises to relieve lower back pain

There are lots of benefits to getting stronger, like healthier bones and better balance. If you want to lower your risk of chronic pain or injuries, the best approach is to do exercises that include your whole body and build strength slowly, like swimming, yoga or pilates.

Some specific stretches and exercises can protect against lower back pain and relieve it. If you’re already having trouble with your back then it’s important to listen to your symptoms and start slowly.

Repeat these exercises every day, starting with the strength-building exercises (1-3) and ending with stretches (4-6).

Exercises for your lower back

1. Bridges

Weakness in the glutes can cause lower back pain. Bridges work this large muscle group, which will help stabilise the hips and lower back.

  1. Lie down with your feet on the floor, spaced as wide as your hips.
  2. Place your arms by your side, with your palms down. Keeping your shoulders firmly on the ground, press into your feet to lift your hips into the air.
  3. Hold for 10-15 seconds.
  4. Repeat 8-15 times, before resting for 1 minute.
  5. Start again, repeating up to 3 times.

2. Half crunches

This exercise activates the abdominal muscles, which keep you stable and support the back.

  1. Lie down with your feet flat on the floor, feet hip-width apart.
  2. Place your hands on your chest with your arms crossed.
  3. Breathe in. As you breathe out, tense your abdominal muscles.
  4. Lift your shoulders off the ground by a few inches, in one smooth movement. Avoid rounding your neck.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position, resisting your body weight as you lower back down.
  6. Repeat 8-10 times before resting for 1 minute.
  7. Start again, repeating up to 3 times.

3. Tummy tilts

This exercises the muscles that support the spine, which can help protect it and prevent injury. It’s a lower intensity movement, but it should engage all your core muscles at once.

  1. Lie down with your feet on the floor, spaced as wide as your hips.
  2. Place your arms by your sides in a relaxed position.
  3. Breathe in deeply. As you exhale, pull your stomach in as if you were trying to touch your belly button to your spine. Keep your hips still.
  4. Hold for 5 seconds.
  5. Repeat up to 5 times.

Stretches for your lower back

4. Cat-cow

This helps stretch and warm up the abdominals and lower back muscles. It’s good to do this one before and after exercise or whenever you feel achy.

  1. Start on your hands and knees, with your hands directly below your shoulders and your knees below your hips.
  2. Gently round your spine, tucking your chin in towards your chest and your pelvis under your hips, so you can feel a stretch along your back.
  3. Slowly return to a neutral position.
  4. Reverse the motion by arching your back, pushing your chest toward the ground and lifting your chin to look upward.
  5. Repeat 5-10 times.

5. Knee rolls

This stretch encourages mobility in the hips and lower back. You can do it on the floor or your bed.

  1. Lie down on your back with your feet on the floor and your knees pointing upward.
  2. Keeping your feet on the floor, slowly lean both knees to the same side.
  3. Hold for a few sections and then repeat on the other side.
  4. Repeat 5-10 times.

6. Knee hugs

This stretch helps to counteract strains caused by hyperextension in the lower back muscles and creates space between the vertebrae. You can do it on the floor or your bed.

  1. Lie down and hug your knees into your chest.
  2. Hold for up to 20 seconds. You can place your hands over your knees and raise your head off the ground to increase the stretch, squeezing yourself into a ball.
  3. Slowly release.

When to speak to a doctor about lower back pain

Mild lower back pain is usually nothing to worry about and should go away on its own, especially with regular stretching and exercise.

Speak to a doctor if:

  • Your pain doesn’t get better or worsens
  • It stops you from doing your daily activities
  • You feel worried about the pain
  • You develop incontinence or numbness when you wipe your bottom

This article has been medically approved by Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi.

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