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Advice to improve your movement, fitness, and overall health from the world #1 in orthopedics.

Back Exercises to Strengthen and Stretch, from a PT

Try these six simple exercises to make your back stronger and more flexible.

Advice to improve your movement, fitness, and overall health from the world #1 in orthopedics.

Every movement you make engages your back in some way. That’s because the back connects so many parts of your body, including your hips, glutes, chest, shoulders and neck. That means back stability is key to a healthy body.

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A back that’s unstable may bear the brunt of whatever activities you do, harmless as they may be. “If you’ve adapted to a certain way of sitting on the couch, for instance, this has consequences for how you move,” says Brian Goonan, PT, DPT, OCS, SFMA, ART, a physical therapist at HSS Midtown. “Asymmetries in the way we move can negatively impact daily activities such as lifting a child or reaching up to a shelf."

Below are Goonan’s favorite basic back strengthening and stretching moves. “They’re safe to do anytime, anywhere, to target stability and mobility,” he says. Each works a different plane of motion — the sagittal (forward and back), frontal (side-to-side) and transverse (rotational) — and they should be accessible to everyone. “If you’ve got pain and any of these moves make your symptoms worse, that’s when you know you need to see a doctor,” he adds. 

Start with each move two times a week, then move to three, and so on. Start with one time per day, then once you master them, you can do them more than once a day. Once you gain stability and mobility from these, you can move to higher-level, more-targeted back exercises.

3 Exercises for Back Strength

These exercises focus mainly on stability. “A stable back allows us to sit, stand, walk, run, lie down, or do whatever we need to do without pain or injury to the back or other parts of the body,” Goonan says.

McGill Curl Up

  1. Lie face up with your right leg straight and your left leg bent with your foot on the floor.  
  2. Place your hands underneath the small of your back, elbows flat against the ground.
  3. Inhale, brace your core, tuck your chin slightly to keep your spine neutral, and raise your upper body in one long line, ever so slightly off the ground.
  4. Hold for 15 seconds as you exhale.
  5. Repeat twice, then bend your right leg, straighten the left leg and do the exercise three times on this side. 

Bird Dog

  1. Get on all fours on the floor with knees hip-width apart and hands firmly on the ground about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Pull your lats backwards and push the floor away with your hands. To make sure your abdominal muscles are braced properly, imagine there’s a glass of water on your back that you don’t want to spill. You can even put a yoga block or a flip flop on your back to test yourself.
  3. Slowly lift your right arm, reaching toward the front wall. 
  4. Slowly lift and straighten your left leg, making sure your toes point down toward the floor, bottom of the foot pushes back toward the back wall, and your left glute is engaged. 
  5. Keep your weight centered and don’t lift your leg too high – your torso should be level and have no sway to it.
  6. Hold this position for 5 seconds.
  7. Keeping your right arm straight, lower it back to the floor as your left leg bends to the starting position. 
  8. Repeat with the right arm and left leg 2 more times. Remember to hold the position for 5 seconds each time.
  9. Repeat the entire sequence on the other side. 
  10. Repeat the entire sequence on both sides one more time. 

Side Plank

  1. Lie on your left side with your left leg slightly bent and your right leg extended straight with your foot on the floor. 
  2. Hold your right hand up, reaching it toward the ceiling. 
  3. Brace your abdominals, exhale, and lift your right hip as high as it can go, keeping your left knee, lower leg, and elbow on the ground, directly under your shoulder. Reach your right hand further toward the ceiling. Your right knee, hip, and shoulder should be in a straight line and not tipped to the front or back.
  4. Stay in that position for 15 seconds, making sure your left side doesn’t droop downward.
  5. Gently drop back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat the exercise on the right side.
  7. Repeat the exercise on both sides one more time. 

As you progress and get stronger, you can start with both legs extended straight, the right foot in front of the left and your left knee will go up, then eventually you can do a full plank, with both legs extended straight, one stacked over the other. 

Note: The video below demonstrates a slight variation on the exercise as described above.

3 Stretches for Back Flexibility 

In addition to stability, mobility in all the muscles and joints around the back is vital to maintaining back strength. “If your hips, hamstrings, hip flexors, or even your calf muscles are tight, you’ll never be able to create the support you need in your back to keep everything healthy,” says Goonan. 

Hip Flexor Stretch

  1. Lie on your back on the bottom of the bed or couch.
  2. Hug your left leg into your chest.
  3. Hang your right leg over the bottom of the bed/couch. 
  4. Stay in this position for at least 45 seconds as you feel the stretch in your right hip flexor.
  5. Repeat on the other side. 
  6. Do for a total of 2 to 3 times.

Note: The video below demonstrates a slight variation on the exercise as described above.

Supine Pigeon Stretch

  1. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
  2. Lift your right leg and place your right ankle on top of your left knee. Keep your right foot flexed to protect the knee.
  3. Interlace your fingers on the back of your left thigh and gently pull your left knee toward your chest.
  4. If you can, use your right elbow to push the right thigh away from your body.
  5. You should feel a stretch in the right glute but no pain in the knee or hip. 
  6. Hold for at least 45 seconds as you breathe in and out. 
  7. Release the left leg and place your right foot back down on the floor.
  8. Repeat with the other side for a total of 2 to 3 times on each side.

Open Book Stretch

  1. Lie on your right side with both legs bent at a 90-degree angle, resting on a pillow or two, so that your top leg is in alignment with your pelvis. 
  2. Place your arms and palms together, extended straight in front of you.
  3. Slowly rotate your upper back as you open your left arm and shoulder toward the ceiling, then eventually all the way to the left (or as far as feels comfortable).
  4. Follow your left hand with your eyes.
  5. You should feel a gentle stretch in your upper back, chest and shoulder.
  6. Repeat 2 to 3 times, then switch to the other side.

As you progress and get more flexible, you start with your right leg straight and your left leg bent at a 90-degree angle.

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