Your spine is an integral structure within your body. It acts as a support beam that runs from the base of your skull to your pelvis to carry your weight. The unique “S” shape of your vertebrae is designed to offer maximum support while withstanding enormous amounts of stress.
Sudden awkward movements, constant strain, or pre-existing musculoskeletal conditions can undermine this stability and impair the functionality of your spine. Learn more about the spine here.
Each year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), back pain costs individuals and businesses $50 billion in disability and missed work.
The evidence of back problems is clear, but what can you do to safeguard your back? The answer is to stretch and strengthen your back muscles to protect your bones and soft tissues from injury.
IMPORTANT: Please understand that NOT all of the exercises and stretches listed here are appropriate for everyone. If you have certain pre-existing conditions or experience increased pain or discomfort during these stretches, stop the exercise and consult an orthopaedic or spine care specialist immediately.
Take stretching cues from your cat
Back stretching exercises like the “cat stretch” increase your flexibility and provide balance to your musculoskeletal system. Try these back-stretching exercises to minimize back pain.
Cat stretch: This stretch both flexes and extends your spine. You may notice instant relief from tightness in your back while performing this stretch. To achieve the stretch:
- Start on your hands and knees on a carpeted floor or padded mat and your back parallel to the floor.
- Slowly let your back dip while you sag your belly toward the floor. Hold the position for 10 to 20 seconds.
- After returning to the starting position, arch your spine upward, away from the floor. Hold the position for 10 to 20 seconds.
- Repeat the entire stretch 2 to 4 times.
3. Knee to chest stretch: This is an easy stretch that focuses on your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. To achieve the stretch:
- Lie on a mat or carpet with your back flat on the floor. If you find it more comfortable, you may also place a pillow under your head and neck.
- While keeping your left leg straight and on the floor, bring the right knee up toward your chest until you feel a deep stretch along your lower back and buttocks. Hold the position for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Repeat the stretch by straightening your right leg and bringing your left knee toward your chest and hold.
- If it’s comfortable, you may perform this stretch by bringing both knees toward your chest in a single motion.
- Repeat the entire stretch 2 to 3 times.
Strengthen your entire body to strengthen your back
A healthy spine is supported by strong muscles around the spinal column. To be free of back pain, it is essential to have not only strong back muscles, but strong supporting muscles as well. Focus on strengthening your abdominal muscles, hamstrings, and hip flexors in addition to your back muscles.
Similar to the stretching exercises listed above, back-strengthening exercises can do more harm than good if performed improperly or with an existing injury. If you have concerns, talk to your doctor or a orthopaedic specialist before starting any exercise program.
Try these back strengthening exercises to reinforce your spine and minimize back pain.
1. Bridge exercise: This exercise strengthens the muscles surrounding the spine as well as your hip flexors and abdominal muscles. To complete this exercise:
- Lie on a padded surface with your back flat, knees bent, and arms (palm side down) at your side.
- Raise your hips toward the ceiling while squeezing your glutes (buttock muscles). Aim to make a straight line from your knee joint to your shoulders. Hold the position for five seconds then slowly lower your hips back to starting position.
- Repeat the exercise 10 to 12 times.
2. Airplane exercise: This exercise focuses on the glutes, upper and lower back muscles, and hamstrings. To complete this exercise:
- Start with your hands and your knees supporting you on a padded surface. At the starting position, your back should be straight and your knees and palms should be spread about shoulder-width apart. Throughout the exercise, keep your neck in line with your back.
- Engage your abs by pulling your abdominals toward your spine while slowly extending your right arm straight in front of your head. At the same time, extend your left leg out, in line with your spine. At this point, your body should form a straight line, extending from your heel to your spine, and to the tips of your fingers. Hold the position for two to three seconds and return to starting position.
- Repeat the exercise by extending your left arm and right leg simultaneously.
- Repeat the entire sequence three to five times on each side.
3. The dart exercise: This Pilates exercise strengthens the muscles in your upper and lower back. To complete this exercise:
- Lie on your stomach with your arms touching your sides and your legs pressed together on the floor.
- As you inhale, engage your abdominal muscles and raise your torso off the mat or carpet, making a slight arch in your back. Your hips and pelvis should remain stationary on the floor. Hold the exercise for three to five seconds.
- Exhale and lower your body back toward the floor.
- Repeat the sequence three to five times.
As your back muscles get longer and stronger, you should notice your back pain begin to subside. If regular stretching and exercise does not seem to alleviate your back pain, it may be time make an appointment with a bone and joint specialist.