5 essential morning stretches to relieve back pain

Regional Lead Physiotherapist, Joanne Fidock, recommends a series of morning stretches to relieve back pain and keep it at bay.

With 8 in 10 people in the UK affected by back pain at some point in their lives, myths about its cause and treatment are rife. One of the most unhelpful of these is avoiding exercise, but in most cases, movement can help you recover and prevent a recurrence.

1. Back flexion stretches

While lying flat on your back, hug both knees into your chest and flex your head towards your knees, so you’re curled up in a ball. Hold this pose for 10 seconds and adapt the depth of the stretch to match your ability.

The Back flexion stretch (also known as cat-cow in yoga) is a dynamic movement that alternates arching and rounding of the spine. By moving through these two beneficial positions, you're able to gently stretch and strengthen the muscles along and beside the spine. This helps build flexibility and mobility whilst aiding with pain and discomfort relief.

Cat/cow is a great position for improving posture, relieving tension in the back, and activating your core muscles.

2. Side bends

While standing, slowly slide your hands down the side of each leg, going as far as you can until you feel any stretch or discomfort. Hold for 10 seconds and ease yourself back to standing. Repeat on the other side.

Lengthening one side of the body as you contact the other helps improve flexibility and mobility in the muscles that surround the ribcage. This stretch can help improve posture, alleviate stiffness in the back and hips, and build a greater range of overall motion. 

On top of this, side bends (when built into a larger stretching or yoga routine) are great for balance, symmetry, and alignment throughout the body. Depending on how flexible you are, start slow and concentrate on building form before you start to lengthen the stretch.

3. Sitting flexion stretches

Sitting on the edge of the bed, reach both hands down to touch the floor. Aim to curl your spine into a ball as you do so. Hold for 10 seconds and slowly return to sitting. Repeat this a few times until you feel it eases any stiffness.

This stretch targets the muscles of the lower back, hamstrings, and calves by having you reach forward and down from a seated position.

By gently folding at the hips, you lengthen the spine and stretch the muscles along the back of your body to improve flexibility in your hamstrings and lower back. By working these muscles that are notoriously tight, you'll help alleviate tension and build flexibility.

The sitting flexion stretch is particularly beneficial for individuals who spend long periods sitting or standing at work. If you work in an office and find your posture suffering, this is a great stretch for you. Regular practice can help increase mobility in the spine and reduce the risk of stiffness and discomfort in the lower back and legs.

4. Hip stretches

Lie flat on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Rest the ankle of your right leg on the knee of your left leg. Link your hands around your left thigh and pull the thigh towards the chest. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Modern life and sedentary behaviours have meant our hips have become tighter and stiffer over time. This stretch is great for opening them up and relieving pressure and tension.

5. Supine twists

Lying on your back, place your arms on the ground with your palms down, so you’re in a T shape. Gently lift your feet until your shins are parallel to the ceiling. On an outward breath, lower your legs to the right, keeping your left shoulder on the ground if you can. Turn your head to look at your left hand, relax and hold for 10 seconds. Then bring your knees back to the centre and repeat on the opposite side.

A supine twist targets the muscles that surround the spine, particularly the thoracic and lumbar regions as well as your hips and outer thighs.

This stretch has a number of benefits, including better overall mobility in your back and spine, improved flexibility at your hips, and relief from tension and tightness in your shoulders. Because all of these areas are prone to tightness, this stretch is incredibly popular. It's a great way to alleviate discomfort associated with sciatica and other lower back issues.

If you're new to stretching or yoga, it's essential you perform any stretches slowly and mindfully. Move gently and avoid any movements that cause discomfort or strain your muscles. If you have an existing back or hip injury, we recommend consulting with a qualified yoga instructor or healthcare professional before attempting this pose.

Top tips for getting started

An excellent place to start is with a routine of daily stretches to keep your back flexible and prepare you for a day of activity. Perform these exercises within the limits of your comfort and you should notice any discomfort improves over time.

These 5 clinically devised stretches are a great way to start your day. If any of them increase your pain or cause extra pain, speak to a physiotherapist or personal trainer for a bespoke alternative.

When should I stretch my back?

Stretching first thing in the morning is a great way to wake the body up and shake off the rust that’s accumulated overnight. The selection of stretches we’ve put together here are just as good for desk workers sat at a desk all day.

If this sounds familiar, mixing things up with our 5-minute workplace workout can have big benefits for your neck and spinal health.

How long do these stretches take?

You can perform this set of stretches as many times as you want. If you experience any new pain whilst you’re stretching, cease and book an appointment with a physiotherapist.

Breathe deeply in and out as stretch and don’t rush. Each stretch should be taken slowly, with emphasis placed on performing a full, rounded movement. 

How can back stretches help? 

Back stretches can help increase flexibility and reduce muscle tension to ultimately improve your day-to-day posture. Incorporating a few stretches into your routine helps enhance blood flow and oxygenation to the muscles, promoting relaxation and relieving pain and discomfort. Stretching can also help reduce the frequency of injuries.

Who are these stretches for?

These stretches are great for anybody. Whether you’re a desk worker looking for relief during the day or an older adult looking to stave off age-related aches and pains, this selection of stretches can help.

There’s no equipment needed and you can do all of them quickly and effectively within five minutes.

Can I do these stretches at home?

Absolutely. These stretches are perfect for first thing in the morning, during the day, or right before you go to bed at night.

Making this quick and accessible stretch session part of your daily routine can help you feel looser and more limber in no time.

More of our favourite stretches

Classes are a great way to make stretching part of your everyday routine. If you’re looking for a visual prompt and prefer to follow along with an instructor, we’ve got you covered below.

More support

Exercise of any form is helpful for managing most types of back pain. It’s an essential part of any treatment programme and is included in NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidance.

For more advice on exercises for back pain, book an online appointment with one of our physiotherapists.

Our free Joint Pain Programme

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The programme is completely free and has helped thousands of people up and down the country learn more about their condition and find relief from the pain and symptoms associated with arthritis and joint pain.

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Last updated Friday 22 March 2024

First published on Wednesday 9 October 2019