The Best Exercises for Back Flexibility, According to Physical Therapists
Learn why you might experience low back tightness and how to improve your back flexibility, especially with stretches and exercises from physical therapists.
Do you ever look at that person in your yoga class doing moves that seem impossible, or see someone effortlessly bend over and touch their toes, and think, I’ll never be flexible enough to do that? It’s true that being flexible, particularly in your back, proves very useful in performing everyday activities, as well as preventing and managing joint and muscle pain. But it’s about much more than being able to twist yourself into a pretzel in a yoga class.
“Good back flexibility means that you have good movement throughout all the levels of your spine and even hips,” says Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “This is important, because good back movement means it’s easier to do things in your daily life like bend over to pick something up off of the floor or carry something in from the garage. Otherwise, you may end up overusing one area of your back, which makes it more likely you’ll experience back pain.”
Back flexibility is especially important if you’re sitting at a desk for most of your day — or sitting anywhere, for that matter. Being in a seated position for long periods of time without movement breaks often causes back muscles to tighten, which can prevent you from doing what you want to do after office hours. Thankfully, there are a lot of ways you can improve your back flexibility, especially with exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Kristin Vinci, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Lower Back Tightness
When you wake up in the morning or stand up after being seated for a while, does your back feel tight? If so, limited back flexibility may be the culprit — or at least a contributor. “Once you get going and move around, that feeling of tightness should disappear as circulation to that area improves,” says Dr. Vinci. This is also true with all of our joints.
Tight back muscles can feel really limiting, but it’s important to remember that lower back tightness does not mean there’s a structural problem, Dr. Vinci stresses. A lot of regular, everyday activities can contribute to tight muscles. While this isn’t inherently bad, it can contribute to problems down the road if it’s not addressed.
“If your back muscles are really tight and not flexible, it can cause you to develop more muscle strength and length in one area of the back, but muscular weakness in other areas,” Dr. Vinci explains, which can lead to even worsening stiffness. That’s why it can be really helpful to break the cycle by doing low back stretches to improve flexibility and prevent long-term pain and stiffness.
A Simple Toe Touch
You may have heard that a simple toe touch — where you stand up with your legs straight, then bend over and touch your toes — can help assess back flexibility. It’s true that if you can touch your toes, it may indicate a good amount of lower back flexibility. But if you can’t, “it may just mean that you have short arms,” Dr. Vinci points out, or limited flexibility in other areas of your body. How your back feels as you go about your day-to-day activities is a much better gauge of your back’s flexibility, she stresses.
Why Flexibility Matters
Flexibility isn’t just about being able to bend over to pick something up from the ground. There are actually other health reasons why you want good back flexibility, too, such as:
Better sleep. A 2019 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that regular stretching led to significant improvements in insomnia.
Less pain. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that yoga and stretching — two things that are shown to improve flexibility — were associated with less back pain and better back functioning in patients with chronic back pain.
Better fitness. Research suggests that people with good lower back flexibility are more mobile and have an easier time exercising. This can even translate to a faster walking speed for some people.
How to Improve Back Flexibility
The best way to improve back flexibility is to stay active, says Dr. Vinci. “All the things that you’d do normally to improve your strength, balance, and coordination will improve your back flexibility as well,” she explains. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. So keeping active is the first piece.”
The second, she notes, is to do a wide range of back stretches. The more variety the better. “Try combining static stretches — where you hold the same position for 30-45 seconds — with dynamic stretches, which are controlled movements that prepare back muscles for activity,” Dr. Vinci notes. This combo can be as simple as pairing a quad stretch with riding a bike, or a hip flexor stretch with walking lunges, she adds.
Another helpful tip: “Use your breath to help support movement and push your body as far as you feel it can go,” says Dr. Vinci. One way to do this is through diaphragmatic breathing. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other below your rib cage, so that you can feel your diaphragm move as you breathe. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves out. As you exhale through your mouth, tighten your stomach muscles so that your stomach moves in.
The 8 Best Back Stretches for Lower Back Pain and Flexibility
There are many ways to stay active and stretch your lower back, but the given back flexibility stretches recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great starting point to help you relieve lower back tightness.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
When to Talk to a PT
If you’ve had a recent back injury or surgery, such as a spinal fusion, you’ll likely want to work with a physical therapist. They can help you identify gentler back stretches and exercises that take limited mobility into consideration while still helping you regain your flexibility.
Even if you haven’t had an injury or surgery, if your back tightness doesn’t improve or gets worse in spite of gentle movement and stretching, working with a PT may help. They can screen you for other issues that might be causing muscle tightness or stiffness, such as a major muscle imbalance, says Dr. Vinci.
They can also work with you to make sure that you’re confident in yourself when doing your back stretching exercises. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
Learn More About Hinge Health for Back Flexibility
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This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Wu, T., & Zhao, Y. (2021). Associations between functional fitness and walking speed in older adults. Geriatric Nursing, 42(2), 540–543. doi:10.1016/j.gerinurse.2020.10.003
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