When clients show up with lower back pain or lower back stiffness I tend to ask a lot of questions. There are many different layers to this problem, it could be rooted in deep structural problems in the lumbar spine or more superficial muscle strain, it could be from a fresh local injury or from compensation from an old injury somewhere else. Is it on the left or right side? Overall rule though that I will treat the whole area, both sides and maybe a site or two away from the localized pain and that is what I recommend for home stretches too.
With lower back stretches you definitely have to include glutes (your bum) and thighs (quads and hammies – front and back of the thighs) and higher up the chain like your lats and possibly all the way down to your ankles. Bear with me here, if basic low back stretches would help, you wouldn’t be here so just hear me out. One more outrageous thing I will say, that some of these lower back stretches are NOT stretches at all. Muscles don’t just hurt when they are short and spasming, they can also hurt when they are long and weak, so we need to reel those muscles in and make them stronger, more functional, and more balanced with the rest of the body.
Like with any hands on treatment, we will come from areas farther away and zero-in on your trouble spots after some warm up. This allows you to check on other areas and see how they feel, if there is other trouble spots. You might be in for some surprising discoveries. J
Let’s start with the glutes, those are the big strong muscles you sit on and never think of. I heard it million times in a massage how “nobody ever worked on those before” and “feels amazing”.
This should be a big powerful muscle on humans, but since most of us sit all day at a desk, in a car, in a chair, in front of the tv, it is generally not that healthy. So let’s get on these first.
If you have a roller at home you can get on it like this:
You can also make a fist with both hands and start punching yourself in the bum, just lightly first and try to cover the whole muscle group without hitting the bones. It is tiring; you might need a couple of rounds before you can actually relax your glutes.
Second let’s get into your thighs. We are going to stretch your quads on the front of your thighs. Why quads? Everyone stretches hamstring… Well, most of the people have weaker hamstrings and more bulk in the front. Some of it is anatomy, QUADriceps means FOUR heads of muscle, which means you have more cross sectional area in the front and the hamstrings are only 3 heads of muscles. We also sit on our hamstrings too, so the lack of circulation and lack of use also adds to this imbalance.
See a variation for the couch stretch here:
And also try hip bridges like this, really trying to find those glutes and hammies:
Let’s explore what’s up the chain too. Latissimus are a powerful and big muscles of the back. They can push you into extension, or pull you down into a side bend. They attach to the top of the hip bone (ilium), run along your spine and end up in your arm (humerus), they go the whole length of your back.
Latissimus Dorsi. Look at the attachments how wide they go on the back, covering almost the whole lower back and how high up they go under the arm.
If you would like to see how these feel, try this movement
Once you did warm up with these exercises we can get to your lower back. Again, I might recommend some movements that might be new, so just enjoy.
First lay on your back on the ground, bring your knees up where they are comfortable and plant your feet on the ground hip width apart. Just take a couple of breaths in and try to relax into this position. There are a couple of things you can check in this position. Where does your back make contact with the floor? High up? Only at the bottom ribs? Straight flat? Slide your hand under your lower back and see how far off the ground you are? Can press onto your hand or a towel with your lower back while you exhale? Try that a couple of times. If you are closer, can you press into the floor? Now check your breathing, put one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Where do you feel rising with inhalation? Which hand moves more? Which hand moves first?
One of the most overlooked muscle in a lower back pain case is the diaphragm. We take about 20-25.000 breaths a day using this muscle. We can agree that is a lot of work. The diaphragm is attached to the lower ribs, the back of the sternum and the front of the lumbar vertebra. This way it does affect lumbar spine movement and freedom. For this muscle to work properly you need the ribcage to work, move on inhalation and exhalation. If you have the freedom there you will have a better chance of loosening up in the back.
Pictures of the diaphragm. See how big and connected it is?
In a lower back pain session I would work on all the previously mentioned muscles plus I would slowly go deeper into the layers. There is another muscle which if I start working I get a lot of questions like “That’s it! what the heck is that? Never felt that before.”, “I know”, that is your QL (quadratus lumborum). This muscle is pretty deep in and it has a lot of function in all different planes. It works in back extension, side bending and even in rotations, also connects your hip to your ribs or vice versa. It is also one thin fascial layer away from your hip flexors. Oh oh … most people heard of these, the internet is full with “hip flexor stretches” and “psoas release” balls and techniques. However I don’t recommend just blindly stretching your hip flexors, and there should be a caution taken with deep hip flexor releases. Since you mostly you get to it from the abdominal side you need to consider all the anatomical structures that are around it.
You can see how deep in your “hip flexor” aka Psoas is. Nobody wants to dig that deep. If you do the modified couch stretch correctly and the supine 90/90 with breathing correctly it should take care of your hip flexors and your QLs.
If you feel like that is not the case try this Feldenkrais hip integrator:
and this hockey stretch:
This is where you can add your basic stretches that feel good.
If you feel like you got a work out AND a stretch session, you did great! It does take a while to feel the right muscles in the right combination at the right time. Give yourself some time and you can practice multiple times a day.
Try these and let me know in the comments how you feel or if you have any questions.
*If you have neurological symptoms like numbness, tingling or muscle weakness with any of the exercises, please stop and see your physician. If you know you have a structural issue that might contraindicate any of the exercises please ask your doctor before trying it out. These exercises are not a replacement for medical attention or aimed to diagnose.