Having a tight lower back isn't just a matter of discomfort: if your muscles are tensed and kinked, it means they aren't working properly to keep your bones and balance in line. Not only does alleviating lower back tension help increase your comfort, but it can also help prevent debilitating back injuries before they occur. Read on to find out what causes tightness in your lower back, plus 10 safe lower back stretches you can utilize to ease the tension and find pain relief.
Back to Basics: The Common Causes of Lower Back Pain
The lower back is one of the most vulnerable parts of the body. Evolutionarily, while our brains are marvelously protected by the skull, and our most vital organs (the heart, lungs, and liver) are caged in by our ribs, our lower torso and lower back are practically wide open. This is a side effect of early man standing upright while our ape ancestors still move around on all fours. We gained the opposable thumb, but now all the weight of our brains and organs rests on one column of bone, nerves, and muscle tissue located in our lower back.
If we still walked on our knuckles, lower back pain and injury wouldn't be one of the leading causes of workplace and household harm, but since science is all about moving forwards, not backwards, let's talk about what might be holding us back.
1. Insufficient Lumbar Support
There are many places where you may be getting improper lower back support, including:
- At your desk: Sitting for long periods of time is bad enough for your health and blood flow, but if you spend all day hunched over and typing, your muscles are constantly tensed up, trying to hold this unnatural posture. Experts recommend ergonomic desks and chairs, opting for a standing desk if possible, or taking regular, frequent breaks to stand and stretch.
- As you walk: Your body is like a Möbius strip, it neither begins nor ends; it's just one continuous loop. Tension in your neck, for example, can mess up your gait, just as uncomfortable or unsupportive shoes can cause back pain all the way to the neck. Making sure you have proper shoes for your feet (especially if they're overpronated or your have foot tendonitis) can ease pain, prevent limping, and possibly help avoid back tension.
- While you sleep: Sleeping on a mattress that's too soft, or without proper hip support (which can be helped by sleeping with a pillow between your knees) can lead to a tight lower back and difficulty moving first thing every morning.
2. Exacerbating Exercise Techniques
There is a reason physical therapists and personal trainers cost a pretty penny: expert knowledge of anatomy helps them see from where your muscle pain is arising and how best to fix it. When most of us have lower back pain, we assume something is wrong with our lower back, but it could be a matter of having one leg shorter than the other, a tightness in our shoulders that's causing a misalignment, or just bad movement habits we've picked up along the way.
Guided exercise can relieve tight lower back pain that already exists and help prevent muscle tension and sprains we don't even know are on the inevitable horizon. Taking a fitness class or consulting a trainer could be all the diagnosis you need to fix chronic lower back pain if it's caused by inexpert exercise practices. Just remember: there's no shame in being wrong when you start out with fitness: every expert trainer was once a beginner too.
3. Strain and Improperly Healed Injury
Some people use their lower back far more than the rest of the populace. If you're a mover or warehouse worker, you probably already know to wear a back brace and lift with your knees, but some injuries will surprise you regardless. If you're a medic, rescue worker, or homecare nurse, you may be called on to lift another person out of a dangerous position (a patient in a car wreck for example, or someone who's fallen in the enclosed space of a bathroom). And what about athletes who have to quickly contort their bodies in reaction to the games they engage in? Some careers and activities make your lower back more susceptible to injury than others.
One tweak or muscle strain can linger if you don't have time to rest the injury properly, and reinjury on top of that becomes more and more likely with each day. While not everyone can take the recommended time off to heal and rest, proper stretching can help a sprain heal faster and loosen the area so that reinjury is less likely to occur.
Tight Lower Back Symptoms
You may recognize a tight lower back by these tell-tale symptoms.
- Lower back pain
- Back muscle cramping
- Back spasms
- A dull, constant backache
- Stiffness, tension, or a contracted sensation in the back
- A tightness in your hips, pelvis, or legs
Some soreness after working out or doing some heavy lifting is to be expected, but if the pain doesn't subside after a few days, you may be looking at a more persistent injury that needs to be handled with care lest it gets worse.
10 Stretches to Help Alleviate a Tight Lower Back
Here are some simple exercises and stretches you can do to increase your back's flexibility and loosen up lower back tension, from hips to hamstrings and more. It's important to help straighten the hips and the spine, and strengthen the legs as well, so we've covered all the bases when it comes to tight lower back pain relief.
Viparita Karani is a yoga pose also known as "legs up the wall" because, well, you rest your legs up against the wall. It engages your pelvic muscles, lower back, and the back of your neck, but primarily provides a deep stretch for your hamstrings and relaxes your lower back and pelvis.
- Assume a seated position with your right side against the wall.
- Place your left elbow on the floor and carefully swing your legs up so that the back of your legs are against the wall and you're lying with your back flat on the ground. (Use a cushion to elevate your hips or back your hips away from the wall if this stretch is too deep for you at first.)
- Allow your arms and back to relax.
- Hold this position for at least 2 minutes as your tendons and muscles adjust.
This is a convenient exercise that can be done anytime and just about anywhere (before bed, upon waking, on the elevator, during a bathroom break, etc.), and targets the abdominal muscles, the erector spinae muscles (the ones that run the length of your spinal column), your pelvic muscles, and gluteal muscles. It helps to loosen your hip muscles and engage your core muscles for a nearly full-body stretch.
- Strike a standing stance with your feet slightly wider than your hips.
- Place your hands on your hips and gently sway your hips from side-to-side.
- Then rotate your hips in a clockwise direction, making 10 large circles.
- Switch to counter-clockwise circles for another 10 revolutions.
The Balasana yoga pose is more commonly known as child's pose. It stretches your hamstrings, your gluteus maximus, your spinal extensors, and your posterior muscles. By taking the pressure off your lower back, you can experience immediate relief and help stretch and lengthen.
- Start from a kneeling position and sit back on your heels.
- Bend forward as far as you can with your arms extended (use a cushion or pillow under your chest or forehead if the initial strain is too much).
- Allow your bodyweight to settle down and your tension to ease for at least 1 full minute.
This great stretch needs a bit of floorspace to sprawl out on, but it can beneficially impact the sacral muscles (at the base of the spine), the pelvic muscles, the erector spinae muscles, and your obliques.
- Lay on your back, splaying out your arms and bending your knees up.
- Exhale as you slowly drop your knees to either the left or right side, while turning your head to look in the opposite direction.
- Inhale as you return to the starting position.
- Continue with the other side, and alternate back and forth for 1 minute.
This yoga pose involves your lower back, hamstrings, erector spinae muscles, abdominal muscles, and gluteus maximus. It also helps align the spine.
- Lay down on your back with your legs extended.
- Lift up your right leg (at first) while leaving a slight bend in both the right and left knees.
- Lace your fingers behind the right leg or hook a band or towel over the right foot.
- Hold your right leg in an upright stretched position for 30 seconds.
- Repeat this stretch on the left side, alternating back and forth 3 times each.
6. Pelvic Tilts
This exercise focuses on your abdominal muscles and increases flexibility in your lower back region, as well as your hamstrings, sacral muscles, and gluteus maximus.
- Lay on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor.
- Engage your core muscles to press the lower curve of your spine flat to the floor.
- Hold that position for 5 seconds.
- Repeat the tilt at least 3 times (increasing repetitions as you get stronger).
Not unlike the pelvic tilt, the bridge stretch can build up strength in your quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteus maximus.
- Start from the pelvic tilt's beginning position (back and feet on the floor, knees bent and pointing upwards).
- Lift your hips and buttocks off the ground towards the ceiling.
- Lift your chest and back even further off the ground so your contact points with the floor are now your head, shoulders, arms, hands, and feet.
- Hold for 1 minute, and repeat at least 3 times.
This stretch utilizes the quadriceps, pelvic muscles, spinal extensors, and gluteus maximus to help loosen up your lower back muscles.
- Lay on your back with your legs extended.
- Draw your right knee to your upper body with fingers laced over your shin.
- Hold this position for 5 seconds.
- Release the right leg and repeat with your left leg.
- Then draw both knees to your chest for 30 seconds.
This is two yoga poses in one, combined to help stretch and flex the spine, hips, and abdomen. It engages your core muscles, specifically your abdominal muscles, erector spinae muscles, gluteus maximus, and triceps.
- Start from a tabletop position (on all fours).
- Inhale and look up as you allow your belly to drop towards the floor (this is the cow pose).
- Arch your back upwards towards the ceiling as you exhale (cat pose).
- Flex back and forth between these poses for 1 minute.
Don't let the name disturb you. This yoga pose is the end of the line for your stretching routine, not your life. It's designed to let your body rest and relax after all this productive stretching, and gives you a moment to release any remaining tightness or tension throughout your body.
- Lay on your back coffin-style with your arms beside your body, palms facing upwards.
- Space your feet out as wide as your shoulders and let your feet splay to the sides.
- Breath deeply with a clear mind as your body relaxes.
- Stay in this position for 5-20 calming minutes. Your call!
A tight lower back can be caused by anything from poor posture to tight hamstrings or weak core muscles. Regardless of where the tension originates, you can address it with the above-listed stretches.
If for any reason stretching leads to more pain and not less, consult a fitness or chiropractic professional to get specific advice on your technique, to receive physical therapy, or to seek medical advice for any underlying issues (like arthritis, sciatica, a slipped disk, osteoporosis, etc.) that are causing your back problems in the first place.
With the right exercise routine, many people can loosen up a tight lower back, and subsequently sleep better, work better, and play better every day of the week.