Why a Child’s Pose Stretch Can Secretly Thwart Lower Back Pain



Suffering from lower back pain? You’re not alone — according to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately four out of five people have lower back pain at some point in their lives. “In a young and healthy person, back pain can happen from sitting too long and/or inactivity due to muscle shortening,” says Theresa Marko, PT, DPT, MS, a board-certified orthopedic physical therapy specialist based in New York City. “As one gets older, back pain might stem from joint stiffness and arthritis as well as from stenosis — a narrowing of the spinal cord canal.” Other common causes of lower back pain include myofascial pain (a chronic pain deep within muscle tissue) and disc herniation.

Thankfully, there’s an easy way to help relieve or prevent that stiffness in your back: by regularly stretching your lower back. “Stretching can help relieve lower back pain by improving the range of motion of the spine,” explains Christine Villoch, M.D., vice-chair, Division of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Pain Management at Miami Neuroscience Institute’s Spine Center. In fact, a 2017 study published by the Annals of Internal Medicine found that yoga can be as effective as physical therapy in alleviating symptoms of chronic low back pain.

Beginners can start by stretching for five to 10 minutes about two or three times a week, says Stefani Sassos, MS, RDN, NASM-CPT, the Good Housekeeping Institute‘s deputy nutrition director and Certified Personal Trainer. However, if you’re experiencing active back pain — or you’re sitting in a chair for most of the day — Marko recommends doing these stretches daily, if not a couple of times a day. You can complete these moves at any time, but Sassos advises incorporating them into your morning stretches, as your muscles tend to be tightest in the morning.

Beyond just regularly stretching, it’s a good idea to exercise and keep active, too. “Along with stretching exercises, core strengthening exercises are also very important to alleviate back pain as well as prevent it from returning,” says Dr. Villoch. Below, we rounded up eight of the most effective lower back exercises and stretches, as recommended by orthopedic and fitness experts.

1. Hip Flexor Stretch

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“Oftentimes, tight hip flexors can be the biggest contributor to lower back pain and tightness,” says Sassos. “If you’re in a prolonged sitting position, like at a desk job all day, this can directly affect your hip flexors and contribute to lower back pain and tightness.” A kneeling hip flexor stretch can help loosen your hips to relieve and prevent back pain.

How to do a (kneeling) hip flexor stretch:

  1. Kneel on both knees.
  2. Place one foot forward and bend the knee so you have a 90-degree angle at the hip and knee. If needed, place your hands on the front knee for support.
  3. Keeping the torso upright, slowly lean forward until you feel a stretch in your thigh.
  4. Move slowly back and forth five to 10 times, or maintain a hold for 30 seconds.
  5. Switch legs and repeat.

2. Hamstring Stretch

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There are several different ways to do a hamstring stretch depending on your preference, but Marko recommends lying down and using a strap or exercise resistance band, as you can relax your back in this position. You should feel a stretch at the iliotibial band (a band of fibrous tissue that runs along the outside of your leg), adds Dr. Villoch.

How to do a (lying) hamstring stretch:

  1. Lie flat on your back with your legs fully stretched out.
  2. Place a strap or an exercise resistance band on the bottom of one foot.
  3. Holding the strap in both hands and pulling towards your chest, slowly and gently lift one leg up towards the ceiling, keeping your knee straight.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds.
  5. Lower your leg down to the starting position.
  6. Switch legs and repeat.

3. Knee-to-Chest Stretch

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According to Marko, another good pose that focuses on the muscles of your lower back is the double knee-to-chest stretch. You can also do another variation, a single knee-to-chest stretch, with just one leg.

How to do a double knee-to-chest stretch:

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Lift both knees to your chest.
  3. Wrap your arms around your legs just below your knees, and pull them to your chest.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds. You can also rock your body left and right as you hold your legs to massage your back gently.

4. Piriformis Stretch

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Marko also recommends trying the piriformis stretch, also known as a supine figure 4 stretch. This specific exercise works your piriformis muscle — a flat muscle that runs from your lower spine through your buttocks to the top of your thighs, as noted by the Mayo Clinic.

How to do a piriformis stretch:

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Bring one leg up and cross it over the other leg. Rest your ankle on top of the knee to create a figure 4.
  3. Bring both legs up slowly and hold the thigh of the leg that your foot is resting on.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute.
  5. Switch legs and repeat.

5. Seated Spinal Twist

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The seated spinal twist stretch is also known as the Half Lord of the Fishes Pose (or Ardha Matsyendrasana) in yoga, as indicated by the non-profit organization The Art of Living Foundation, which offers self-development programs based on meditation and yoga. “This full-body stretch is amazing for improving spinal mobility, alleviating lower back pain and opening up the hips, among many other benefits,” adds Sassos.

How to do a seated spinal twist:

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight out in front of you.
  2. Lift your left foot and, bending your knee, place it flat on the ground on the outside of your right thigh.
  3. Place your right arm on the outside of your left leg, and place your left hand behind you for support.
  4. Gently twist your body to the left side.
  5. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute.
  6. Repeat on the other side.

6. Child’s Pose

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Another common yoga pose, child’s pose is a fast and easy way to gently stretch your back and the muscles around your hips, according to officials at the Mayo Clinic. If you’re having trouble laying your forehead on the ground fully, you can switch it up by resting your forehead on your arms instead.

How to do the child’s pose:

  1. Start on your hands and knees.
  2. Rest your buttocks on your heels and lean forward, extending your arms in front of you with your palms placed flat on the floor.
  3. Rest your forehead on the floor.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute.

7. Cat-Cow Stretch

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This dynamic stretch involves moving the lower back muscles in two different directions. “You’ll gently mobilize the spine and release tension with this popular stretch that works great as a warm-up and can improve posture too,” says Sassos.

How to do the cat-cow stretch:

  1. Start on all fours on your hands and knees, keeping your hands shoulder-width apart.
  2. Exhale deeply while bringing your abdomen in and arching your spine up toward the ceiling, tucking your chin into your chest (cat stretch).
  3. Inhale deeply while curving your lower back downwards and tilting your pelvis up, bringing your head up (cow stretch).
  4. Repeat these movements several times.

8. Pelvic Tilt

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According to Sassos, this exercise not only reduces stiffness in the lower back by stretching out those tense muscles — it’s also great for engaging specific core muscles, like your abdominal muscles.

How to do a pelvic tilt:

  1. Lie on your back on the floor with both knees bent.
  2. Flatten your back against the floor, tightening your abdominal muscles and raising your pelvis up.
  3. Hold for up to 10 seconds.
  4. Release and repeat.

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