7 Back Stretches to Help Ease Pain and Increase Mobility
You may not realize it, but your back takes a beating every day. Help alleviate back pain with some good back stretches.
Whether you spend your day on your feet or your seat, the muscles from the base of your skull to your tailbone are working for you. These muscles keep you upright, pull objects toward you, and move and support your shoulder blades as you reach, stretch, and extend your arms. Only when you’re lying flat, do all of these muscles get to relax.
Is it any wonder that your back feels like 20 miles of bad road at the end of a long day?
The seven back stretches below will help restore proper posture and range of motion.
Benefits: Increases rotational mobility along the spine, stretching muscles throughout the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions.
How to do it:
- Sit cross-legged, left leg in front of your right.
- Sit up tall, lengthening your back and pulling your shoulders back slightly.
- Place your right hand on your left knee, and the fingertips of your left hand on the floor behind you.
- Continuing to lengthen your spine upward, look over your left shoulder, twisting to your left as far as possible.
- Breathe deeply, attempting to rotate farther to the left with each exhale.
- Hold for 20–30 seconds, and repeat on the other side, switching the cross of your legs.
Benefits: Stretches the lats and trapezius.
How to do it:
- Stand upright, with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms extended forward.
- Rotate your palms outward, so your thumbs point toward the floor.
- Cross one forearm over the other, and bring your palms together.
- Breathing deeply, round your back forward, reaching your arms forward as far as possible.
- Hold the stretch for 20–30 seconds.
3-way back stretch
Benefits: Stretches the lats and the muscles surrounding the rib cage.
How to do it:
- Stand upright, with your feet shoulder-width apart, and your arms extended overhead.
- Interlace your fingers and flip your hands so your palms face the ceiling. Hold for 5–10 seconds.
- Maintaining the positioning of your arms and hands, bend to your right and hold for 5–10 seconds, repeating the move to your left.
- Returning to an upright position, maintain the position of your arms and hands, and round your back forward until your arms are parallel with the floor, holding for 5–10 seconds.
Bench lat stretch
Benefits: Stretches the lats and helps with overhead shoulder mobility.
How to do it:
- Stand beside an incline bench or other sturdy, chest-high object with your feet wider than hip-distance, and place your right elbow on top of the back support.
- Placing your right hand behind your head, slowly lower your body toward the floor until you feel a deep stretch along your right side.
- Hold for 20–30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Stability ball lat stretch
Benefits: Stretches the lats and muscles in the shoulder through contraction and relaxation, while improving mobility in the overhead position.
How to do it:
- Kneel and place the backs of your hands on top of a stability ball (or chair). Extend your arms straight and keep your head in a neutral position.
- As you keep your back flat and your arms straight, lower your chest toward the floor. Sink into the stretch while you press the backs of your palms into the ball. Hold for 5 seconds.
- Remain in the stretched position and release the downward tension on the ball for 5 seconds—work toward sinking deeper into the stretch for an added challenge.
Benefits: Promotes rotational mobility along the spine, stretching the middle- and lower-back muscles.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet together. Press your palms together in front of your chest, and point your elbows out.
- Keeping your back flat and your knees together, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body until your hips make a 90 degree angle (like you are sitting in a chair).
- With your back still flat and your elbows wide, twist your upper body to the left, placing the back of your right elbow against the outside of your left knee.
- Hold for a five-count, then repeat on the other side.
Benefits: Improves rotational mobility of the spine, and stretches muscles all along the upper and lower back, as well as the hips.
- Lie on your back. Open your arms into a “T.” Hug your knees in toward your chest.
- Keeping both shoulders on the floor, slowly turn your head to the right and lower your knees toward the floor to your left (if you feel a deep stretch in this position, stop here).
- For a deeper stretch, extend your left leg downward, place your left hand on the outside of your right knee and breathe deeply, pressing your right knee toward the floor.
- Hold whichever version of the stretch is appropriate for 20–30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Why Back Muscles Get Tight
“Your shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body,” says Openfit fitness specialist Cody Braun.
As kids, we took advantage of that range of motion, climbing trees, traversing monkey bars, and throwing objects of all kinds, which helped our shoulders — and the back muscles that support and control them — stay mobile and healthy.
But as we age, the average adult’s habitual range of motion is much less varied. Most of us spend our days at a desk, which keeps the lats in a perpetually shortened position. We rarely twist or reach behind us.
Desk sitting has consequences for other back muscles, as well. The upper fibers of the trapezius — which extends from the sides of your neck to your shoulders — become overactive, causing the shoulders to shrug slightly. When this happens, the muscles feel tender to the touch.
Slouching causes the upper back to round forward, creating a hunched appearance — a position you may be holding right now. As your head angles downward, the muscles in the middle of your back have to work harder than usual to support it — which explains the chronic upper back, neck, and shoulder tightness experienced by many desk sitters. Because of this poor posture, your neck muscles might feel sore and your chest muscles tight from constant contraction.
How to Stretch Your Middle, Lower, and Upper Back
The muscles of the back support and articulate the spine, so you need to exercise some caution when stretching them. Furthermore, the shoulder joint, for all its mobility, has a downside, “it’s susceptible to injury,” says Braun.
Think of stretching not just as lengthening muscles but as learning new ranges in your joints.
“Lengthening a muscle takes time,” says Braun. “Some people force mobility by applying extreme tension against the muscle, but this will only lead to pain.”
For especially tight areas, use a foam roller or lacrosse ball to soften the tissue first, then choose a move or two from the list of back stretches above and work on increasing your range of motion — gradually.
“This recipe, over time, paired with improved daily posture and movement patterns, will help you move better,” says Braun.