Strengthen your core and loosen your muscles for a healthy back
Lower back pain is annoyingly common—an estimated 31 million Americans experience low-back pain.
While some cases of lower back pain can be quite extreme and require surgery, the good news is that about 90 percent of cases improve without it.
Your lower back, or lumbar spine, is comprised of five vertebrae at the base of the spine that are insulated by small, cushioning discs and are attached to ligaments and muscles.
These muscles are part of your core, which include the oblique and ab muscles. Lower back pain originating in these muscles can be lessened or improved with simple stretches.
While we tend to think lower back pain stems from heavy lifting or bending over to pick something up, one common cause is much more benign: sitting.
"Most people, when they work, sit all day and it causes tight hamstrings and weak glutes. Everything is connected in the body, so if you mess up one thing in your body it affects another," says Katrina Smith, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified trainer and manager at Mayet Fitness in New York City.
When you sit, your hip muscles and glutes are constantly shortened, which pulls on your pelvis and in turn strains the muscles in your lower back, Smith says.
To loosen your lower back muscles, hamstring, and glute muscles to help relieve pain, try the five stretches from Smith. Do them before heading to bed or after a workout. Go through them in order, holding each for at least a minute. The tighter your back, the more sensation you may feel—if the pain is sharp and sustained, and doesn't feel like normal stretching, stop and head to a doctor.
Knees to Chest: Lie on your back and pull your knees into your chest. Wrap your arms around your legs just below the knees and grasp your elbows if possible. If you're really tight, try doing one leg at a time.
Forward Fold: Stand with your feet hips-width distance apart. Hinge forward at the hips and hang with your arms straight and down. The goal isn't to touch your toes, simply to let gravity loosen your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes, Smith says. Hang as low as you can to get a stretch, but don't force your body into it.
Child's Pose: Sit on your shins, with your bottom on your feet. Bend forward at the waist and place your forehead on the ground. If you can't quite reach, use a stack of books to rest your head down. Walk your arms out in front of your head as far as you can with your hands flat on the ground. Hold for one minute and then walk your hands to the right, holding for another minute to stretch the left lower back muscles. Walk your hands to the left and hold for a minute.
Crossovers: Lie on your back with your legs straight and arms out to form the shape of a "T." Bring your right knee in to your chest, and then over to the left side of your body, placing it on the ground if possible. Turn your head to the right, making sure to keep your arms straight. You should feel a stretch on the back of your right leg and glutes. Repeat on the other side.
Hamstring Stretch: For this move, use an open doorway and wall as a prop so you can stretch one leg at a time. Start by sitting to the left of an open doorframe. Position yourself so your right side is lined up with the open door and your left in line with the wall. Sit about a foot away from the wall. Lie back and extend your right leg through the doorway and lift your left leg straight up onto the wall (left heel touches the wall). Creep your bottom as close to the wall as possible, trying to get as much of your leg flush with the wall as you can, until you feel a stretch in your hamstring. Repeat on the opposite side. To further the stretch, prop your torso up on your elbows.
Ab Strengthening Exercises: If you don't have much lower back discomfort, but want to make sure it stays healthy, Smith recommends strengthening the other parts of your core. "Ab exercises that strengthen your core tend to really alleviate lower back pain," she says.
To Try: An ab plank before bed or added to your normal exercise routine is a simple and no-equipment exercise that strengthens your entire core. Start on all fours. Lower your elbows to the ground, under your shoulders and clasp your hands so your fist and forearms make a triangle. Lift your knees up into a plank position, and keep your hips in line with your shoulders. If it's too hard, drop to your knees but keep the support in your upper body. Hold for one minute on, 15 seconds off, and repeat three times.
Talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.