Stretching and Strengthening to Keep Your Lumbar in Line


Sep 1, 1997
Outside Magazine

Injury or no, enhancing the mobility of the spine with stretching is a good thing. And when the acute agony of lower-back pain passes, strengthening the postural muscles, which run along either side of the spine between the shoulder blades, will help prevent a recurrence. We're not talking the old toe-touch here, perhaps the most widely known and worst exercise for any back. Rather, this is a combination of moves culled from several disciplines. Be sure to combine these exercises with crunches — squeezing a pillow between your thighs makes the standard technique work that much better — to strengthen your abdominals. Indeed, your abs serve as the body's built-in corset, maintaining stability in the lower back.

Pelvic Tilt
Restores mobility in the lumbar spine

Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and arms at your sides. Keeping your legs relaxed, tighten your lower abdominal muscles to press the small of your back into the floor, as if you're crushing a grape. Then arch the small of your back.

Stretches lower-back and gluteal muscles

Assume the pelvic tilt position, holding the phase when the small of your back is pressed into the floor. Keeping back and legs relaxed, hug both knees to your chest, pulling them to your armpits. Hold for a ten-count.

Horse Stance
Strengthens back extensors and postural muscles

Start on all fours and, keeping your back flat, extend your left arm and hold it slightly to the side, with your thumb pointing toward the ceiling. Now raise your right leg; hold each limb parallel with the floor for ten seconds. Alternate sides to complete one rep. To advance, "draw" the alphabet in 12-inch-high letters with your raised foot.

Heel-Hand Rock
Stretches lumbar muscles, increasing range of motion

Start with what's known in yoga as the cobra position: Lie on your stomach, toes pointed and hands on the floor alongside your chest. Press your torso up until your arms are straight, keeping your pelvis on the floor. Now roll your shoulder blades down and raise the crown of your head toward the ceiling, elongating your spine. Keeping your hands planted, go onto your knees, lift your hips, and rock back onto your heels until your butt rests over them; you end up prostrate with your head down. Finally, uncoil back into the cobra and repeat.

Million-Dollar Hamstring Stretch
Stretches hips, hamstrings, and back

Sit on the floor with one leg extended in front of you, the other bent with your foot flat on the floor. Rest your chin on your bent knee, grasp the arch of that foot with your hands, and slide your heel along the floor until you feel that slight twinge of muscle discomfort that indicates a good stretch. Then, while you are holding the stretch for six seconds, rotate your straight leg inward, which improves the mobility of your nerves, allowing you to stretch even further. Now switch legs and repeat the whole routine.

You'll want to take a different tack with your back when you're hurting, but don't stop exercising altogether-no matter what the temptation. In the midst of a painful flare-up, adopt the following therapy routine using the exercises laid out on this page, and be sure to forgo anything that inflicts more pain.

Do a set of 20 pelvic tilts several times a day, especially after a period of inactivity.
Do 15 pelvic tilts, holding the up position for five seconds, interspersed with sets of 30 crunches.

Do three repetitions of knee-huggers; increase to ten reps as you're able.
Do a set of five knee-huggers, holding the position for 30 seconds.

Segment the heel-hand rock, doing the cobra and rock-back portions independently, five reps each. Your cobra may not get far off the floor at first.
Do ten reps minimum of the heel-hand rock.

Do five reps of the horse stance one limb at a time, holding each for five counts. As your condition improves, extend opposite limbs simultaneously.
Do ten reps of the horse stance, holding the pose for up to a count of ten. Then, if you can draw the entire alphabet with each foot, you're doing well.

Take a rain check on the million-dollar hamstring stretch until the pain subsides.
Do six to ten reps of the million-dollar ham- string stretch. Repeat set with opposite leg.

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