Everyone should stretch at least twice a day since everything we do to our body during the day results in short, tightened muscles – whether you have a physical job or a desk job. Without daily stretching, muscles become tighter and shorter, and it is this shortness that creates the inability to lengthen by choice or by some other outside force like tripping. An injury can occur fast when our muscles are unexpectedly pushed out of their comfort zone. Typically the back, especially the lower back is the first to get injured.
If you have bad back, a good exercise routine can help you relieve some of the symptoms. Even if you’re not in pain, doing specific stretches can serve as a preventative maintenance program for your spine.
Stretches are an excellent technique to keep your spine aligned. It’s makes you feel good emotionally. It’s a way to relieve stress, lift my spirits, or take your mind off something that’s on my mind.
The stretches described in this article for a healthy back should be enough to keep your back healthy and pain-free.
Back of the Legs Stretch (Hamstrings and Calf Muscles)
There are many different ways to stretch the hamstrings and the majority of them are very effective. The one that I am going to show you today helps a little more directly with the back as it helps to stretch out the whole of the rear of the leg, pin-pointing where the tight areas are. A tight hamstring will pull on your pelvis when you stand; this in turn causes the extra strain in your back. Before you start, here are some tips to stretching that you need to learn first.
1. Pain should never be a part of stretching.
2. Use a scale of 1-10: 1 being nothing and 10 being agony. You need to stretch to a 6 or 7. This should feel as if it is pulling right in the middle of the muscle and nowhere near your bones. It should feel like a strong pull and not painful or sharp.
3. When taking your body into any stretch, once you have done it, just hold it there. Do not force it any further and definitely don’t bounce (By “bounce” I mean short regular movements trying to force your muscle to stretch further than it wants to. You can damage the muscle by doing this.)
4. Breathe! Your muscles won’t be able to relax properly if you are holding your breath. Use nice deep yoga-style breathing, take in a lung-full and let the air out nice and slowly right to the end.
5. It is better to get the technique correct than concerning yourself about how far you stretch. Bad technique could result in you receiving no benefits from the stretching or worse still an injury. And that is the kind of irony we don’t like
6. Try and do stretches first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The more you can do the better, but morning and evening is fine as a minimum.
As everyone is different I have to cover myself and make it clear that this advice is not suitable for everyone. If you are suffering from a bad back then get it properly checked out by a doctor or better still a back specialist before you take on any exercise or stretching. There are many causes of bad backs and not all of them are directly muscle related. Please be careful when you stretch, don’t take it too far.
For this first stretch you will need to find yourself a step and maybe a rail to help with balance. Other than that you just need yourself. Stand on tip toes with your heels off the step. Slowly drop your heels down a bit, still off the step, so you feel a very small stretch in your calf muscle (back of the lower part of your leg). On the scale it should be around a 4-5, a small pull. For this next part you will need to hold onto the rail for balance, still on the step.
Keeping your legs completely straight at the knee. Lean forward at the waist, keeping your upper body equally straight. You should only be bending at the hips . Keeping your heels below your toes you should start to feel a pull in your hamstrings. At the same time the pull in your calf muscles should increase.
Do not worry if you can’t feel a pull in the hamstrings straight away it will just mean that your calf muscles are more tight. As you slowly lean forwards you need to stop and hold that position when either your calf muscle or hamstring reaches a 6-7 ( a pull in the main section of the muscle – and remember BREATHE!). Now, how long should you hold this stretch? In the past anything from 10 to 20 seconds has been acceptable. However in my experience and results from some recent studies have proved that longer is better. In my opinion anything from 45 seconds to a minute is best.
So now your body should be in the position shown in the diagram (I have marked in red where you should feel the main stretch. Finally coming out of the stretch: do not stand upright but bend your knees first so that you release the legs. Then stand upright, doing this will help prevent any excess stress on the lower back itself.
Hip Flexor Stretch
The Hip Flexor or Ilio-psoas muscle is used by our bodies to raise the upper portion of our leg towards our torsos. We use it a lot for walking, running etc. so you can imagine with all this use it has a tendency to shorten. But this is not the whole story. Since the majority of us spend a large part of the day sitting, it is in fact this position that shortens the muscle the most.
In the seated position the muscle is kept in its shortened state for long periods. Our bodies are amazing at adapting to our demands and when the muscle is kept in this shortened position the body responds by assuming, incorrectly, that this muscle doesn’t need to be so long.
Direct Influence on the Back
Why is this so bad for our backs? Well for starters we need to look at the position of the Hip Flexor muscles. They join from our upper thigh bone through our pelvis and straight onto the lower portion of our spines. This muscle therefore has a direct influence on our backs. As the Hip Flexor is now shortened from all the sitting you do, when you come to stand one of two things could happen:
- You could be stuck in the seated position and be bent over double, or
- You can stand up straight but the short muscle now pulls directly on your spine causing all the small back muscles to tighten up to fight against it. In turn this can create back pain and even pull your spine out of its natural line. Ouch.
So hopefully you can now understand the importance of stretching this muscle and why you may have a stiff back after long periods of sitting. The solution is firstly not sit for long periods without getting up and moving around. The second is to perform the following stretch at least twice a day.
For this stretch all you will need is yourself, maybe a full length mirror to check your technique and a stretch mat or carpet to protect your knees. Whilst standing take a large step forwards and lower yourself down, use a hip-level rail for support if you need to, so that your back knee is on the ground beneath you and slightly back and your front leg is 90 degrees at the knee joint in front of you.
Doing this correctly will create a small pull right at the top of your leg that you are kneeling on (see red mark on diagram). Get this to a point where the stretch will feel like a 6 to 7 out of 10. Hold this stretch for 45 seconds to 1 minute then repeat on the other leg by changing whichever leg you have forwards.
Read also: A Simple Guide to Prevent Lower Back Pain
Cat Curl Stretch
This stretch works directly on all the small muscles that run along both sides of our spines. These are the muscles that are put under a lot of pressure by the other larger muscles; whether indirectly like the hamstrings (rear of the thighs) or directly like the hip flexors (front of the upper thighs).
These small muscles get very tight trying to protect your spine from being pulled out of line by the larger muscles. Back ache can often be caused by these getting tired from all the work they are having to do. This stretch is a very good way to release these small muscles (erector spinae muscles). They react the same way as all muscle when put under constant stress: they tighten up and shorten.
In this state they can no longer do their job properly and due to their location they put a lot of pressure on all the vertebrae. The solution is to try and avoid sitting for long periods and keep good movement in the spine by doing the following stretch at least twice a day.
For this stretch all you will need is yourself, maybe a full length mirror to check your technique and a stretch mat or carpet to protect your knees. Start this stretch on all fours on the floor. Make sure that you start in a comfortable position. All movements must be carried out slowly and carefully, as with all stretches. Slowly arch your back down, sticking your pelvis out and tilting your head back. Remember to take it to a comfortable stretch.
Here you should feel a stretch somewhere along the spine, wherever it is tight. If you don’t feel a stretch this is due to one of two reasons: firstly that your spine is actually quite flexible or ceiling and pulling up. Make sure your chin is on your chest and you are tilting your pelvis in towards the direction of your arms. This stretch should be done very slowly and at each extreme you need to hold the stretch for 10 seconds and repeat until you have completed a total of 10 repetitions 5 up and 5 down.
If during this stretch you feel anything like a sharp pain stop immediately and consult your doctor. In this stretch you should feel no sharp pain merely a pull, if anything at all. A sharp pain and/or radiating pain to other parts of your body can indicate that a nerve is becoming involved. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but is more likely to be an underlying problem that you must consult your doctor about.
Lateral Back Stretch
As with the “Cat Curl” stretch in the previous section this exercise works directly on the erector spinae muscles (the small muscles that run along either side of your whole spine). It is important to stretch the muscles evenly in the directions they can move.
With the “Cat Curl” stretch we were concentrating on the front to back plane that the spine can move in. In this stretch, we are concentrating on the lateral (side to side) movement that the spine can perform. This stretch will help relax the spine muscles and relieve the pressure that tight erector spinae muscles can put on the vertebrae (the bones of the spine).
These muscles get tight due to the pressure put on them from shortened and tight muscles that affect the spine from the rest of our body. The secret is to get a good level of mobility and strength for the whole body. This stretch should be performed with the others at least twice a day (morning and evening).
For this stretch you will just need yourself and a full length mirror to check technique, but the latter is not essential. This is definitely one of the simplest stretches out of the 5 designed to prevent a bad back. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder distance apart, both feet should be parallel and facing directly forwards.
With this stretch we work one side at a time, so pick which direction you are going to lean towards first. Raise the opposing arm in the air (this helps to increase the stretch in other muscles as well as the spine). Lean to the side so that your raised arm is highest and the opposite shoulder is dropping, as in the picture. Be careful and go slowly, taking it as far as the stretch will allow. Now you may feel the stretch around the spine if it is very tight, however you are just as likely to feel it in your sides.
Due to certain muscles being tighter than others, you need to be careful that you are leaning directly sideways on both sides and not slightly forwards or backwards. (There are other stretches that do involve leaning forwards and backwards, but they focus on different muscles and stretching in a different way. We will get into this another time, but for now just lean sideways). Hold the stretch for 45 seconds to 1 minute on one side then repeat on the other.
If you really feel the stretch in your spine on this one (and by stretch I do mean a slight pull and not pain) then be careful as you straighten up, as after stretching a tight muscle it can become weak. A weak muscle does not like doing much work, so instead of just standing upright consider bending your knees first. This will relieve some of the pressure and allow standing upright to become easier.
Piriformis Stretch for a Healthy Back
Now this is a stretch that can leave you in a human knot – a bit like an advanced game of Twister. Before we get into the finer details of the stretch I should explain whereabouts in the body this piriformis muscle is located.
We have two of these muscles and they attach to the very upper part of the thigh bone from the sacrum (the large bony area at the base of your spine). The muscle travels through our pelvis and is in very close proximity to our sciatic nerve, which it is thought to agitate when it becomes too tight. This in turn can lead to radiating pain down the leg also known as sciatica. Very painful and creates a weakness in the leg affected. Its main jobs are to rotate your leg out (turning the knee away from your other leg) and to take your leg out away from the other leg when your hip is flexed (your knee is raised).
You can usually tell if someone’s piriformis may be tight just by looking at the way they stand when relaxed. Their knees should point outwards and so should their feet. The cause of this tightening is generally a sedentary lifestyle combined with a lot of sitting, also bad habits of allowing the knees to point out will add to the shortening process. Another cause is playing sport and not stretching properly after.
Amateur athletes who play sport very irregularly tend to cause added stress on this muscle causing it to tighten further. The result is pain located deep within the buttock. As the piriformis attaches directly into the back it is a very important stretch for the back stretch series. As always the solution is to keep mobile and not to sit for long periods. Also with this muscle it is important to watch your posture and not let your knees point out too much.
The following stretch should also be performed as much as possible but once in the morning and once in the evening will suffice along with your other stretches in this series.
For this stretch you will need yourself and a towel, the latter is optional depending on how flexible you are. Start by lying on the floor on your back. On this stretch you will be working one leg at a time so pick your left leg and cross it over your right leg. Position it so that your left ankle just passes your right knee and the left leg is below your right knee.
Hold this stretch for 45 seconds to 1 minute and repeat on the other leg by repeating the instructions above but using the right leg to cross over and the left leg to pull towards you. Now I had difficulty enough explaining that so I hope you can see what I mean. Some of you may not be very flexible and will have problems reaching behind your legs to pull them towards you. Don’t worry though, as this will show how important this stretch is. To help, use a towel to wrap behind the leg and pull on that instead.
Stretches for Your Back – A Summary
So now you have all 5 stretches for a healthier back. Keep these stretches up especially if you know that your life is particularly sedentary. Even if your back is okay these stretches are good preventative stretches.
These exercises complement good daily habits to prevent back pain and other back problems. For example, don’t slouch in your seat (which should be easier with the above stretches). If you are lifting, also remember to use your legs and arms, not your back.