The 5 Top Stretches to Minimize Back Pain

by Liz Hoobchaak | 18 Comments

Stretching of the joints, muscles, and nerves are very important to ensure that there are no imbalances throughout the musculoskeletal system. Decreased flexibility in any of these areas may lead to lower back pain. Not all of these stretches may be appropriate for everyone. A stretch should not induce painful symptoms. Rather, a stretch should feel relieving to the lower back and may even help to reduce any symptoms. Our five top stretches to minimize back pain:

Generally these are good for individuals who may have a disc herniation. They should be performed with caution for anyone who has spinal stenosis or any known fractures in their vertebrae.

Prone Press Up: Begin by lying on your stomach with your elbows bent underneath you and palms flat on the surface. Keeping your hips and pelvis in contact with the surface, lift your upper torso off the mat with your arms, keeping your back muscles relaxed. Only go as high as you are comfortable. Perform 10 repetitions holding each one for 10 seconds each, working your way to 30 seconds.

Lumbar extension stretch

Starting Position

Lumbar extension stretch

Prone on Elbows




Generally, the flexion based stretches are good for those with spinal stenosis or tightness through the lower lumbar musculature.

Single Knee to Chest: Begin by lying on your back with both knees bent. Bring one knee up towards your chest. Perform 2-3 repetitions, holding each one for 15-30 seconds. You may feel a stretch along the lower back or buttocks area. You may also perform this with both legs up towards your chest if it is comfortable.

Single Knee Stretch

Single Knee Stretch

Double Knee Stretch

Double Knee Stretch





Prayer Stretch or Child’s Pose: This stretch is for the lower back muscles along the spine and is a very common yoga pose. On your hands and knees, sit back so your buttocks is resting on your heels. Reach your hands forward to lengthen your spine and feel a stretch in your middle back. You can reach your hands to either side to focus the stretch on the opposite side of your spine. Hold for 10-30 seconds and perform 2-3 repetitions.

Child's Pose

Prayer Stretch or Child’s Pose

Angry Cat Stretch: 
This stretch can incorporate both an extension and a flexion component. You may perform either way or just one way if that is more comfortable for you. On your hands and knees, let your belly sag towards the table to increase extension through your spine (lumbar extension picture). To increase flexion through your spine, arch your back upwards, bringing your spine away from the table (lumbar flexion picture). You may hold each position for 5-20 seconds and repeat several times.

Angry Cat Starting Position

Angry Cat Starting Position

Lumbar Extension

Lumbar Extension

Lumbar Flexion

Lumbar Flexion

Just as you can stretch a muscle, you can stretch a nerve. Nerve stretches are very important to perform if you have any radiating pain from your lower back into your buttocks or legs. Nerve stretches are also very important to perform after lumbar surgery to ensure that there is no scar tissue adhering the nerve to any internal structures.

Sciatic Nerve Stretch: This stretch should be performed if the majority of the radiating pain into the legs is felt in the buttocks, back of the leg, and/or through the calf and foot. This follows the pathway of the sciatic nerve. By stretching the nerve, it can help to desensitize it so that it will not cause as much pain. Perform this stretch by lying on your back with your hand behind one knee, preferable the leg with the sciatic pain.  Straighten your knee then alternate flexing your ankle back and forth.  Only hold your ankle in each position for a few seconds.  Perform 10 repetitions on each side.

Sciatic Nerve Stretch

Sciatic Nerve Stretch position 1

Sciatic Nerve Stretch position 2

Sciatic Nerve Stretch position 2






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As with beginning any new exercise, start off slowly with a very gentle stretch. Stop if you have any increase in lower back pain or sciatic pain down your leg. If unsure whether you should perform these stretches, consult your doctor or physical therapist.

For more information on physical therapy and locations that offer this service, please click here.


  1. Jeff Juraska Physical Therapist

    The most important two stretchs for golfers: the prayer stretch and angry cat stretch. These not only stretch but strengthen postural muscles. From the five stretchs presented, I wanted to comment on two that I would do as a golfer and physical therapist myself.

  2. Scott Medical Health Center

    Great advice about taking new stretches slowly. To be a little more specific, especially when starting these stretches for the first time, it’s important to stretch only until you feel a very light pull, then hold for 5 seconds. Changing the way your body moves take time and can’t be rushed. On that note however, you can experience great improvements in mood and flexibility by starting your day off with these stretches. Spend 10 minutes when you wake up to get the blood flowing and you’ll get the day off to a great start.

  3. Mike stiffler

    I stand at a buffing wheel 8hrs at work I like your back stretches to stop the hurt in my back.
    Since I have to use my back to push to buff the parts.thankyou very much

  4. Dave Carry

    I have always been wary of doing any exercises that involve stretching my back as I was worried that this would make my pain worse. Since I have been doing the exercises that you have suggested though, I have been aware of a noticeable reduction in the amount of pain that has affected me on a daily basis. I do feel as if my back has gotten stronger and I have an increased range of motion. I try to do all of the five exercises at least once a day, as repeating them all a few times each does not take very long.

  5. Jenny

    I had back surgery on a herniated disc between L4 and L5 in August of ’14. I have had some similar pains coming back in the past couple weeks but the exercises have helped tremendously. Thanks for the reminder and keeping it simple- these stretches don’t take much time and relieve my morning pain/stiffness immensely!

  6. Darryl Fuller

    I have been suffering from lower back pain for most of my adulit life, and I find that the angry cat pose, and the prayer stretch works best for me.

    Will definitely give some of those other stretches a go.

  7. et

    Great information!

    As I understand it, per the Mckenzie Method, and other best practices, those with lumbar disk herniation are likely to primatily benefit from extension exercises, vs.flexion. In fact it was a flexion exercise which actually caused my nerve pain in my thigh. I just wish I had known!

    Other than press ups and the Angry Cat Extension, could you kindly list other exercises which are known to help with lumbar disc herniation.

    Thanks for any guidance!

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