Stretches for Lower Back Pain: Lower Back Stretches to Avoid

Chair flexion stretch

You have to be very careful when choosing stretches for lower back pain. Sometimes stretching the lower-back can be the worst thing you can do. If you have the type of back pain that hurts when you sit or flex your spin (round your back) then doing some of the most commonly prescribed stretches for back pain can actually make your back worst.

Probably the most common type of back sufferer is people who have backs that are flexion intolerant. Whenever they round their back too far it hurts. This type of condition is typical for someone who has bulged or herniated discs that protrude posterity from the lower-back. The discs in the spine are rubbery like plates with a jelly center that go in-between the vertebraes (bones) of your spine and act like shock absorbers; these  help keep the spine flexible. Whenever a flexion intolerant back bends forward too far the pastier damaged discs can push against a nerve and cause pain or just get aggravated or inflamed and cause pain.

Bad Stretches for Lower Back Pain:

Knees to chest

L hamstring stretch

If you have a flexion intolerant back, don’t stretch it out in a flexed position. Avoid all stretches that round the back and put you in a vulnerable position. I know you always hear people say that when you hurt your back you have to stretch but many of the most popular stretches are inappropriate for the back sufferer who is in pain when they try to touch their toes. These include:  the V stretch, knees to chest, the seated L hamstring stretch, and the chair flexion stretch. All these stretches round the back and can put you in the weakest and most vulnerable positions if you have a flexion intolerant back. I know the objective of these stretches are to increase the flexibility of your hamstrings, and lower back muscles (spinal erectors) but the risk of further injury is just too great to do them.

V stretch

If you have back problems, my advice is to get evaluated by a professional and come up with a proper rehab program. If you want to try to rehab your back yourself, avoid any movement that will cause pain and condition your back in a neutral position. Stretching for lower back pain may not be the right move.

Come back for a future article about how to strengthen the lower back in a neutral position.


Let me know if you have ever hurt your lower-back stretching it.

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Best – Mike Cola


About Mike Cola

Mike Cola has well over 50,000 hours of hands-on personal training experience. He started his own personal training studio in1989, Mike Cola Fitness, which is located in New York.Connect with Mike @ Google+

22 Responses to “Stretches for Lower Back Pain: Lower Back Stretches to Avoid”

  1. Mike,

    Fortunately, I’ve never had back pain, but I know enough people with back issues who suffer constantly. It’s good to know which stretches to avoid. The last thing you want to do is make it worse.


  2. Hi Mike! I’m not sure if this particularly applicable to my case but I’ve been having back pains for quite some time now. Maybe due to working hours in front of the computer and just basically sitting. Maybe I’d have to consult a pro.

  3. I used to suffer from back pains and I know wat its like! stretches really helped me!

  4. Very good point about the dangers stretching with back flexion. Unfortunately I think I have an issue with some discs in my back. In future articles you should talk about work station ergonomics, and how to stretch the pertinent muscles (hamstring, lats) with out flexing the low back.

  5. Can you say something about chronic sciatica nerve pain? Static stretching relieves the pain, especially if I am physically active afterwards. And 100 lb. squats help even more.

    I understand that the sciatica is often (usually) the result of a compressed spinal disc, but a message therapist recently told me that sciatica pain can also (frequently) be the result of tightened or competition between muscles in the buttocks and girdle.

    Jeff Mannix
    Durango, CO

  6. @ JT

    It’s hard for me to say what the root cause of your pain is. (Have you ever had an MRI?) If squats make you feel better it’s most likely because you are keeping your back straight and getting a good hip hinge while actively stretching and strengthening your gluts and other supporting spinal muscles. The fact that 100 pounds of compression do not cause any pain is a good sign. Compression is good for the spine as long as you don’t overdo it.

    I don’t know the type of static stretches that you are doing that are helping you but if you have a posterior disc herniation, I would not recommend forcing your back into flexion by statically stretching it. You can keep your back straight while stretching out your hamstrings and hips but don’t overly round the back.

    What most people with bad backs really want to do is have flexibility in their hips so when they sit and squat they can keep their backs in a safe neutral position. In the future I plan on doing a whole series of articles and videos on back pain.

    In the meantime read these two posts that I wrote:

    Thanks for the comment.

    Best – Mike

  7. Hi Mike!
    My Mom is suffering from back pain for years, it is really painful she said, we just massage it to lessen the pain, thankfully she haven’t done these stretches at all, seems to me that it does increases the pain and make it more worst than before. Let add that according to my mom’s doctor, these people who are suffering from back pain should not carry heavy stuffs because it adds more pressure into it.

  8. Everyone wants to get free advice on the internet, and I am one too. However, do like Mike says and go to a professional to get an evaluation.

    Once you know what your problem is, then scour the internet looking for solutions.

  9. I’ve been suffering from lower back pain for 2 years now. My job entails sitting and facing my computer for long hours. I don’t perform stretching and just rely on ointment and massage every now and then to lessen pain. 🙂

  10. i have a buldging disk in my lower back and have been suffering greatly the past few months and decided to take action. so i read on internet on some lower back stretching technique. well i did them, pulling knees to chest, ect and i threw my back out even worse so i read this web site and it agrees that some lower back stretches can make it worse. so if i can stretch my lower back, then what do i do. im starting to come to the realization that i just have to live with this pain? is this true?

  11. Mike, you are the first person I have ever heard that has said stretching can be bad. Very interesting to note the times that are beneficial vs hurtful. Conventional wisdom would have you “work through the pain.” Thanks for sharing from your years of experience. – Paul

  12. Hi Reg,

    Google – Stuart McGill, Ph.D. Professor of Spine Biomechanics, Faculty of Applied Health Sciences, Department of Kinesiology, University of Waterloo.

    Read one of Stuart’s books – Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance or Low Back Disorders.

    Best – Mike

  13. Great lower back information. It is always great to extra advice that we can use in the field. I had a friend whose orthopedic told her not to do Yoga anymore because it caused her to have disc problems from hyper-flexion and extension. I guess you just need to practice moderation.
    Thanks for the great post!

  14. I have a herniated disk. According to my doctors advice I did the knees to chest stretch like the one you show and my disk went completely out while I was doing it. I wasn’t able to walk or move for about a week. I stretch very slowly now and do yoga when Im in pain. I know there are stretches that certainly do help, but there are others to do more damage than good. The difficulty is knowing which is which.

  15. Hello Mike,
    I had an mri last week in the lumbar area. I was told that my back does need surgery but a program of physical therapy. I notice that the light pace walk in the tread mill or a strong swimming workout of one hour really help in decreasing the pain. I don’t find pain when doing knee in chest or the stretch in the chair as illustrated above, but the pain doing hamstring stretch is unbearable. What would you recommend?
    Thank you very much,

  16. Sorry…In my previous post I meant “my back does not need surgery”..

  17. Hi Andres,

    My 1st recommendation would be to work with a good physical therapist… it seems like you back is somewhat flexion intolerant if the hamstring stretch causes you pain… obviously don’t do it.

    Everyone’s back pain is very specific to their own situation… but what I have found that helps the most is strengthening the back in the neutral (pain free) position with excesses like the plank….. I would avoid any stretch that causes pain and focused on strengthening your body..

    Work on increasing the mobility of your hips, knees and ankles which will take the pressure off your lower back when you’re moving around… the key is to always keep your back in the safe neutral position while your moving around or lifting…

    Best – Mike

  18. I have a bulging disk as well. Most of my pain isn’t from the disk but when conditions get set up that I get EVIL muscle spasms. The result of the muscle spasms can last for weeks. Weeks in bed or propped up in a chair unable to bend over or if I do unable to straighten up again. Even difficulty lifting my feet up because of the pain.

    I have finally found 2 things that work really really good to return me to being pain free.

    1. exercise core muscles. I’m a member of a rec center with a machine where you can lean forward or back in it from a sitting position and exercise your stomach and lower back muscles. Not only does doing this regularly act as preventive maintenance I can also do it extra when I start to get tweaked and get myself right.

    2. There is something to be said for relaxing tight muscles and tendons etc. Unfortunately when I am sore or beginning to be sore nothing works or causes more pain. My solution for stretching is to lay on the floor with my legs up on the wall. A 90 degree angle is ideal but any angle will be beneficial. Sometimes I only do this for 15 minutes but sometimes as long as 4 hours. However long it takes to relax. I can literally feel muscles relax and release and feel ribs settle into a more comfortable position. I can feel my pelvis settle and rotate in a subtle way. I can gradually feel the curve come back into my back. I can feel alot of tightness around my hips dissipate.

    When I first started trying to fix my back it had been almost 6 months since I had been mobile. I was laying on the floor 4 hours a day or twice a day daily. Started to feel better and then started to work out at the rec center to regain my lost muscle tone from 6 mths in bed.

    Now I only have short frequent workouts and if I feel tweaked I only lay down by the wall 15 minutes or 30 if I’m particularly bad.

    My husband has finally given in to my urging and has started doing the wall thing too. He coughs and he says he gets pinched nerves and things the scoot out of position. So now he does the gentle wall stretching and has noticed that he feels better for longer stretches of time.

  19. I’ve had 3 lower back injuries in my life. The original injury was a spinal compression injury, and the pain came 1 or 2 days later.

    Every time i felt the pain coming, and the back tightening i would stretch it out and try to prevent it from getting worse. All 3 times the pain would quickly get worse, and my back would get very tight. Even though stretching at the time felt good, it would last less than 5 mins and get much much worse.

    2 days ago i wiped out on the ice and landed on my ass. Yesterday I had hockey was feeling 100%, by the 2nd period I could feel a little tightness in my back so naturally I stretched it out, by the end of my next shift i couldn’t even skate the pain was so bad.

    So i don’t know why this happens, but its very real.

  20. I have had 2 herniated disc with nerve entrapment. I do stretch but can’t seem to stop the pain if I’m in a flexed position. The last injury was a year ago and I was told not to pull my knees to my chest anymore. Will you define a back that is flexion intolerant. …..Thank you

  21. Hi John,

    Flexion intolerant – pain when you round (flex) your spine (back)…for example, bending forward aggravates symptoms

    Pulling your knees to your chest can also round the back and cause pain…. I don’t recommend that stretch….

    Best – Mike

  22. I’ve been into weight lifting for a long long time. The following is my opinion of what an active person…who exercises a lot…should do if they have back problems.

    Stretching should be reserved for acute back injuries. But…BRIEFLY stretch before any strenuous activity. Stretching the hip flexors will take a lot of pressure off the spine if its compressed. IMO…when faced with acute back pain…you should be stretching and avoiding strenuous activity until you recover.

    The rest of the time…you need to be exercising and maintaining a strong core which includes the low back…glutes…and abs.

    In a nutshell…core strengthening/exercising is best to combat the chronic back pain that wont go away. Stretching is good for the shorter term acute pain that occurs with an injury.

    For me…after several acute injuries…I did way too much stretching and not enough core strengthening…even after I fully recovered. This resulted in a weak core and eventually bulging L4-L5-S1 discs. I cut way back on the stretching and increase my core strengthening and am so much better now.