22 Back Stretches & Exercises For Back Pain

22 Back Stretches & Exercises For Back Pain

By Dr Shoaib Muhammad , published on June 15, 2023
Dr Dusan Sekulic MD

If you’ve got a sore back, making it stronger and more flexible is a great investment of your time.

Back stretches are a vital part of any effective treatment plan but, as a medical doctor, I can tell you that it's crucial to approach them with care. Here are a couple of pointers I always share with my patients.

First, go easy on yourself.

Especially if you're just starting or have a history of back pain. Begin with gentle stretches and low weights and gradually increase the intensity as your flexibility improves.

Listen to your body because pushing too hard can lead to further discomfort or injury.

Secondly, don't hold your stretches for too long.

Aim for around 20-30 seconds per stretch. Prolonged static stretching may cause muscles to tighten rather than relax, potentially aggravating your back pain.

If you follow this advice, exercises like hollow hold, cat pose, T raises, back extensions, and core strengthening exercises improve stability and reduce the risk of future pain episodes.

We cover all of them and more in this article. Experiment with routines, find the exercises you enjoy and that feel good to do, and then repeat as necessary.

No-Equipment Exercises

Don't have fancy equipment? No problem. You don't need a gym membership or expensive gear to find relief.

In this section, we’ll explore how you can conquer pain and discomfort on your own terms.

Begin with exercises that focus on strengthening your core muscles, such as planks, bridges, and bird dogs.

These exercises engage the muscles that support your back, promoting stability and pain relief. However, there are a few things to avoid along the way.

Say "no" to exercises that strain your back excessively, like high-impact jumping or heavy lifting. We don't cover any of those in this article, but just so you know.

As I mentioned in the intro, always listen to your body and respect its limits to prevent further injury.

Bird Dogs

Area targeted: Lower Back 
Difficulty level: 2

bird dogs

Begin the bird dog exercise on hands and knees, aligning hands under shoulders and knees under hips. Simultaneously extend one leg and the opposite arm, pausing for 3-5 seconds before returning to the starting position.

Alternate sides until the set is finished. Keep your spine neutral, head and neck aligned, and shoulders relaxed. Inhale while lifting your arm and opposite leg, and stabilise your torso by activating your core.

Improper alignment and excessive back arching can strain the lower back or cause discomfort. Maintain a neutral spine and avoid overarching.

Knee-to-Chest Stretch

Area targeted: Lower Back
Difficulty level: 1

knee to chest stretch

Begin by lying down on your back, bending your knees, and keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground. Then, embrace one knee using both hands, drawing it towards your chest.

As you do this, engage your abdominal muscles and press your back into the floor. Maintain this position for a brief moment before releasing back to your initial posture.

Now, replicate this stretch with the other leg. After completing the stretch with both legs individually, do the same action but this time with both legs simultaneously.

It's recommended to repeat this series of stretches twice, ideally once when you wake up and once before you go to bed. Pulling the knee too forcefully or with improper form can lead to strain or discomfort in the lower back. Perform the stretch gently and avoid any pain or discomfort.

Supermans

Area targeted: Lower Back, Abs, Upper Back
Difficulty level: 2

supermans

The Superman exercise, while seemingly straightforward, proves to be quite a challenge as it is highly effective in strengthening the lower back without any equipment.

Start by lying face down on the floor, with arms extended overhead. Engage your core and glutes and concurrently elevate your upper and lower body off the floor, rising as high as comfortably possible without straining.

Hold the peak position for a brief second, and then gradually return to the initial position in a controlled manner. For optimal results, aim to perform this bodyweight exercise in 1-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions each.

Hyperextending the back excessively or using too much force can strain the muscles or aggravate existing back conditions. Keep the movement controlled and avoid overextension.

Plank with Lateral Arm Raise

Area targeted: Core, Abs, Obliques
Difficulty level: 2

plank with lateral arm raise

This home-based back exercise challenges your abs and balance as well by extending your limbs away from your core. Start in a straight-arm plank position with hands beneath and aligned with your shoulders, feet slightly wider than hip-width.

With minimal hip movement, raise one arm to shoulder height. Then, return to the centre and elevate the other arm similarly. Engage your abs by drawing your belly button up and inward, and keep your body centred throughout the movement.

This multitasking workout not only strengthens your back, but also improves core stability and balance. Aim for 10 repetitions per side. Poor core stability or improper form can put excessive stress on the lower back. Engage your core and maintain a neutral spine throughout the exercise.

Back Extension

Area targeted: Lower Back
Difficulty level: 2

back extension

Commence the back extension exercise by lying stomach-down on a mat with your legs extended behind you. Position your elbows on the mat and depress your shoulders.

Elevate your upper back, driving your hips into the mat while maintaining a neutral head and neck position - hold for 30 seconds. Afterward, revert to your starting position.

This should be completed in 3 sets. For a more intense stretch, adjust your hands under your shoulders on the floor. To increase the challenge, position your hands against your body, amplifying the muscle engagement in your back, shoulders, and core.

Overarching the back or using excessive resistance can strain the lower back. Start with proper form and gradually increase the difficulty level to avoid injury.

T Raises

Area targeted: Upper Back, Shoulders
Difficulty level: 1

t raises

You can achieve substantial strength gains at home without heavy weights. This back exercise starts with holding light-weight dumbbells, standing with feet hip-width apart.

Bend your knees slightly, push your hips back, and lower your torso until it's parallel to the floor. Bring the weights together, turning your palms forward.

With arms straight, lift the weights to shoulder height and then gradually lower them back down. It's crucial to maintain the engagement of your core and glutes throughout the entire movement, enhancing the effectiveness of the exercise. It's a great way to improve back strength and stability.

Overusing the muscles in the upper back or performing the exercise with improper form can lead to strain or discomfort. Focus on controlled movements and avoid excessive weight.

Reverse Snow Angels

Area targeted: Upper Back, Shoulders
Difficulty level: 1

reverse snow angels

Start facedown on the ground with arms at sides, palms facing down. Lift shoulders and hands slightly by squeezing your scapulae together and engaging your lats and rhomboids.

Keep your head down, and in a slow, controlled motion, bring your arms up past your shoulders to your ears, thumbs meeting above your head.

Maintain straight arms and locked elbows throughout to engage your lats and shoulders. Return arms to starting position. Repeat this for 3 sets of 5 reps, resting for 30-60 seconds between sets.

Lower Back Rotations

Area targeted: Lower Back, Obliques
Difficulty level: 1

lower back rotations

Initiate this stretch by lying supine, with your knees bent and your feet solidly on the ground. Ensure your shoulders remain grounded firmly against the floor throughout this exercise.

From this position, gently roll your bent knees over to one side of your body. Maintain this pose for a few moments before gradually returning your legs to their original position.

Now, perform the same action, but roll your knees over to the opposite side. To gain the most from this exercise, it's advised to complete this series of stretches a couple of times, ideally once when you rise in the morning and once before you retire for the night.

Twisting the lower back too forcefully or without proper control can cause strain or discomfort. Perform the rotations gently and within a comfortable range of motion.

Hollow Hold

Area targeted: Glutes, Hip Flexors, Abs
Difficulty level: 2

hollow hold

Start by lying on your back with your legs extended and arms stretched overhead. You can opt to hold weights in your hands for an increased challenge.

Push your lower back into the ground while simultaneously raising your arms and legs, creating a C-shape with your body. Your shoulders and feet should be suspended just above the floor.

Engage your abdominal and gluteal muscles tightly and maintain this position for a full minute. Holding the position with poor form or excessive strain on the lower back can lead to discomfort or injury. Engage your core and maintain proper alignment throughout the exercise.

Bridge

Area targeted: Hip Abductors, Glutes, Hamstrings
Difficulty level: 1

bridge

Begin this exercise by positioning yourself on your back with your knees bent upwards and your feet solidly against the ground. Make sure your shoulders and head remain relaxed against the floor throughout the exercise.

Now, engage your abdominal and gluteal muscles, preparing them for the next part of the exercise. Subsequently, raise your hips off the floor, striving to create a straight line running from your knees to your shoulders.

Hold this position for the duration of three deep, calming breaths before gently lowering your hips back down to the ground. Initially, aim to repeat this exercise five times per session, but gradually increase this to thirty repetitions as your strength and endurance improve.

Hyperextending the back or thrusting too forcefully can strain the lower back. Keep the movement controlled and focus on activating the glutes and core.

Cat Pose

Area targeted: Neck, Shoulders, Spine
Difficulty level: 1

cat pose

Start this exercise by positioning yourself on all fours, with your hands placed directly beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips. Gradually, draw your back upwards into a gentle arch, as though attempting to pull your abdomen towards the ceiling.

After holding this position briefly, reverse the motion by allowing your back and stomach to sag downwards towards the floor in a controlled manner. From this lowered position, return your body to its initial posture on all fours.

For the best results, perform this entire series of movements between three to five times in a session, with two sessions to be undertaken each day.

Overarching or rounding the back excessively can cause strain or discomfort. Perform the movement within a comfortable range and avoid any pain.

Seated Lower Back Rotational Stretch

Area targeted: Abs, Shoulders, Neck
Difficulty level: 1

rotational stretch

Position yourself on a chair without arms or a stool. Cross your right leg over your left. Use your left elbow as a lever against your right knee's outer side to gently initiate a twist to the side (A).

This manoeuvre creates a stretch along your lower back. Maintain the stretch for 10 seconds. Subsequently, switch to the opposite side and replicate the stretch (B).

Practice this lower back rotational stretch regularly, performing it 3-5 times on each side during two sessions daily, to enhance flexibility and alleviate lower back discomfort. Twisting the lower back forcefully or without proper control can strain the muscles or exacerbate existing back issues. Perform the stretch gently and within a comfortable range of motion.

Dumbbell Exercises

Dumbbell exercises can be a valuable tool in alleviating back pain and strengthening the muscles that support the spine.

However, it's crucial to approach these exercises with caution and follow some key recommendations. If you're just starting or have a history of back pain, it's advisable to begin with lower weights, lower sets, and repetitions.

Build your way slowly up from there.

This gradual approach allows your body to adapt and minimises the risk of making your condition worse. As your strength and endurance improve, you can gradually increase the weights, sets, and reps to challenge your muscles further.

If you have a history of back pain, consult with your doctor or healthcare professional before you start any exercise program.

They can give you personalised guidance and ensure that the exercises you choose are appropriate for your specific needs and condition.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

Area targeted: Upper Back, Core
Difficulty level: 3

single arm dumbbell row

The single-arm row, performed while stabilising oneself on a bench, specifically targets back muscles, and the exercise's effectiveness can be enhanced by incorporating weights, mindful of maintaining proper form.

Position yourself on a bench with your left knee, shin, and hand resting on it for support. Your right leg should be straight with the foot grounded. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand, maintaining a straight torso.

Draw the dumbbell upward, directing your elbow skyward while keeping it close to your body and squeezing your upper back as you bend your elbow. Slowly revert to the start position.

Do 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps per side. Using improper form or lifting too heavy can strain the muscles in the back or aggravate existing conditions. Focus on proper technique and start with lighter weights.

Dumbbell Aquaman

Area targeted: Lower Back
Difficulty level: 2

dumbbell aquaman

This exercise enhances lower back stability and coordination. Begin by lying face-down on a mat, stretching your arms and legs.

Brace your lower back and buttocks, then raise one arm and the opposite leg, maintaining for a moment before lowering. Switch to the other arm and leg, repeating several times.

Keep your head aligned with your spine. Hold dumbbells for an extra challenge. For an easier version, only use your legs. Overarching the back or using excessive resistance can strain the lower back. Maintain proper form and gradually increase the difficulty level as your strength improves.

Dumbbell Farmer Carry

Area targeted: Full Body
Difficulty level: 1

dumbbell farmer carry

Position yourself standing with feet hip-width or less apart and heavy dumbbells placed beside each foot. Bend to lift the dumbbells, pushing through your heels to perform the lift.

Maintain a tall posture, engaging your core and pulling your shoulders back, while letting the weights hang next to your thighs. Take short, quick steps forward for at least 50 feet.

Turn around and continue the same movement, walking for 30 seconds. Poor posture or using weights that are too heavy can strain the back muscles or increase pressure on the spine. Maintain an upright posture and choose appropriate weights.

Dumbbell Plank Lateral Drag

Area targeted: Core, Upper Back
Difficulty level: 2

dumbbell plank lateral drag

Position a dumbbell on your left side. Begin in a push-up position, palms under shoulders and body forming a straight line from shoulders to heels (or knees, if needed).

Reach your right hand under your left side to grab the dumbbell, then slowly drag it to your right side.

Return your right palm to the floor, grab the dumbbell with your left hand, and slowly drag it back to the left side. Continue alternating for 30 seconds. Placing excessive stress on the lower back or using improper techniques can lead to strain or discomfort. Engage your core and perform the exercise with control.

Dumbbell Pullover

Area targeted: Chest, Upper Back, Shoulders
Difficulty level: 1

dumbbell pullover

This advanced exercise is ideal for strengthening the back and chest, and enhancing shoulder mobility. Choose two lightweight dumbbells to ensure correct form and maximise range of motion.

Lying face up on an exercise bench, feet flat on the floor, hold a dumbbell in each hand at your chest. Engage your core, extend arms up in front of your chest, keeping dumbbells close, elbows slightly bent, palms facing inward.

Gradually extend arms back overhead, ensuring your ribs stay on the bench and arms remain visible in peripheral vision. Pause, then slowly revert to the start position. Perform 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps.

Overextending the shoulders or arching the back excessively can strain the muscles in the back. Perform the movement within a comfortable range and avoid overextension.

Wood Chop

Area targeted: Core, Hips, Lower Back
Difficulty level: 1

wood chop

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, slightly turned out. Crouch until thighs are parallel to the floor, maintaining a straight back.

Grasp a dumbbell with both hands, positioning it by your right thigh. Twisting your torso, lift the weight across your body with straight arms, standing and rotating to face the dumbbell above your left shoulder.

Rise onto your toes during the lift, engaging your core to control the movement. Return to the starting position by reversing the twist and lowering the weight like chopping wood. Emphasise control over speed.

Aim for three sets of 10-15 repetitions per side. Twisting the back forcefully or using the improper form can strain the muscles or aggravate existing back conditions. Perform the exercise with control and avoid any pain.

Good Morning

Area targeted: Glutes, Hamstrings, Upper Back, Lower Back
Difficulty level: 2

good morning

Stand straight, feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell beneath your chin, between your shoulders and hands.

Firmly grip the ground with your feet. Start by bending your knees slightly, pushing your hips back, and leaning forward until you feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings.

Hold this position for a few seconds. Then, carefully lift yourself back to the starting position. Ensure your back stays flat throughout the movement.

Rounding the back or using excessive weight can strain the lower back. Focus on maintaining proper form and start with lighter weights.

Reverse Fly

Area targeted: Upper Back
Difficulty level: 2

reverse fly

The reverse fly is an ideal exercise for strengthening critical postural muscles, necessary for everyday health. Start with light to moderate dumbbells, such as 5 pounds, and gradually increase the weight.

Those with lower back pain or weakness should approach this exercise with caution. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, hinge forward at your hips until your torso is at a 45-degree angle with the floor, allowing the dumbbells to hang in front of you, palms facing each other, and a slight bend in your elbows.

Engage your core, lifting your arms and squeezing your shoulder blades at the top. Return slowly to start.

Do 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps. Performing the exercise with improper form or using excessive resistance can strain the muscles in the upper back. Maintain control and start with lighter weights.

Dumbbell Deadlift

Area targeted: Lower Back, Glutes, Upper Legs
Difficulty level: 2

dumbbell deadlift

Begin by standing with your feet hip-distance apart, each hand holding a dumbbell in front of your hips, palms facing your thighs. Contract your shoulder blades together.

Hinge at the hips to bend over, guiding the dumbbells along the front of your legs until your torso aligns parallel to the floor. Stand back up, focusing on distributing your body weight through your midfoot as you rise.

Repeat this movement for 30 seconds, ensuring to maintain proper form and not rushing any part of the exercise. Using an improper form or lifting too heavily can strain the lower back. Focus on maintaining a neutral spine and gradually increase the difficulty level as your strength improves.

Wide Dumbbell Bent-Over Row

Area targeted: Middle Back, Upper Back
Difficulty level: 2

wide dumbbell bent over row

The wide dumbbell row, echoing a barbell row, offers a greater range of motion and assists in rectifying side-to-side muscular imbalances. Start with light to moderate dumbbells, such as 10 pounds, and progressively increase.

If you have lower back issues, exercise caution. Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, palms towards your thighs, and feet shoulder-width apart. Slightly bend your knees, engage your core, maintain a neutral neck, and hinge at the hips until your torso is at a 45-degree angle to the floor, dumbbells hanging in front.

Row, pulling elbows up at 90 degrees, squeezing shoulder blades. Repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps. Using an improper form or lifting too heavily can strain the muscles in the back. Focus on maintaining proper technique and start with lighter weights.