Who needs back stretches? Most of us, it turns out. These days, many people perform manual labor only rarely—or we simulate it with a workout in the gym—and our body alignment suffers as a result. We spend much of our time hunched over computers, sitting behind steering wheels, or bent forward staring at smartphones. Not surprisingly, our hips lock down, our hamstrings tighten, our shoulders round forward, and our bodies engage in compensatory movements that lead to pain, often in the back.
Making matters worse, many people engage in sports or start a workout right after a full day of sitting at a desk, which can put them at greater risk of injury. To avoid that (and really get the most out of a gym session) it’s best to follow an integrated program to improve hip and shoulder mobility. At the very least, running through a few back stretches before physical activity will help reduce pain and the prospect of injury. Here are seven back stretches to accomplish that.
The Best Back Stretches to Relieve Pain
Benefits: This familiar two-part yoga move improves flexibility in the lumbar and cervical spine and is an effective warmup before any physical activity.
How to Do It: Start on all fours with hands beneath your shoulders and knees on the ground. For the cow pose, inhale and drop your stomach as you push your hips and shoulder blades back. Lift your chin and chest and gaze forward. For the cat pose, exhale as you draw your belly button upward and round your back toward the ceiling. Perform 2 sets of 10 (each move) with a 30-second rest between sets.
2. Downward Dog
Benefits: One of yoga’s signature moves is a terrific full-body stretch, but it’s especially good for the back.
How to Do It: Start on all fours. Inhale and move your hands out from under your shoulders so your arms are extended in front of you (with hands on the floor) at roughly a 45-degree angle. Tuck your toes under your feet. As you exhale, straighten your legs and lift your butt and midsection toward the ceiling. Your knees should be slightly bent and you should be up on your toes. Drop your head between your arms, straighten your arms and legs, and push back on your feet. Press your heels into the floor, or as far as you can go. Hold for 2 seconds. Perform 2 sets of 10 reps with a 30-second rest between sets.
3. 90/90 Stretch
Benefits: This stretches the muscles of your middle and upper back and counteracts the effects of sitting all day.
How to Do It: Lie on the ground on your left side with legs tucked into the torso at a 90-degree angle. Keep both arms straight out in front of you, parallel to your thighs. Keeping the knees together and on the ground, rotate your chest and right arm to the right; try to put your back on the ground without lifting your knees off the ground. Hold for 2 seconds and return to the start position. Perform 2 sets of 10 reps on each side with a 30-second rest between sets.
4. Hand Walk
Benefits: This is a full-body move that lengthens your hamstrings and calves while stabilizing the shoulders—all of which will reduce the possibility of back pain. Hand walks are also effective at stretching your lower back muscles.
How to Do It: Stand with legs straight and bend at the waist, placing both hands on the floor. Walk your hands out in front of you. Keeping your legs straight, walk your feet back to your hands using short steps. That’s 1 rep. Perform 2 sets of 10 reps with a 30-second rest between sets.
5. Backward Lunge With Twist
Benefits: This move decreases the potential for injury in the lower back while stretching the hip flexors.
How to Do It: Stand with both feet together, then step back with your right leg into a lunge position. Turn your torso to the right (so you’re facing to the right), raise your right arm straight up, and arch your arm and torso over your left (front) leg. Push out of that position, return to the start position, and begin another lunge, this time stepping back with your left leg. Perform 2 sets of 10 reps (each side) with a 30-second rest between sets.
6. Reach and Roll
Benefits: A variation of the child’s pose practiced in yoga, this move provides an effective stretch of the upper back as well as the shoulders.
How to Do It: Grab a foam roller and place it in front of you. Sit on the floor with your legs tucked underneath you and your heels under your buttocks. Keep your torso upright. Extend your arms so the backs of your hands rest on the foam roller. Slowly roll the foam forward while letting your chest drop to the ground and keeping the hips back. Hold the stretch for two seconds while keeping both hands on the foam roller. Perform 2 sets of 10 reps with a 30-second rest between sets.
7. Glute Bridge
Benefits: As the name suggests, this move activates the glutes, which prevents long-term back pain while also providing a thorough back stretch.
How to Do It: Lie faceup on the floor with both knees bent 90 degrees and both feet resting flat on the floor directly below your knees. Engage your core, squeeze your glutes, and push your hips up to the ceiling. Only your shoulders, arms, head, and feet should remain on the ground. Hold that position for two seconds, and then lower your hips toward the ground without touching it. That’s 1 rep. Perform 2 sets of 10 reps.