A painful and stiff lower back can easily ruin your day. Follow along with easy exercises for lower back stiffness for instant relief that lasts.
This is a topic that is really personal for me because I had a surgery when I was 14 years old that left me with this pretty big scar on my back. I’ve got a lot of personal experience in dealing with low back pain.
If you’ve got low back pain that consistently comes back, then you rest and it typically goes away after a couple weeks, but it just keeps coming back, then this article is for you.
It’s going to show you how to loosen tight muscles in your lower back whenever it comes back. Plus, you’ll learn a path forward.
You can follow along with the exercises by watching the video Instant Relief from Lower Back Pain and Stuffness (4 Easy Exercises!) on YouTube.
And, there’s an extra bonus exercise at the end if you happen to work long hours at a desk or spend a lot of your day seated.
The relevance of MRI results when you have Low Back Pain
Now, before we get into the exercises and the underlying theory, there’s one study that I want to talk about. It’s really important because it gives you a good perspective on low back pain.
Dr. B and I have talked about this study before, and I just want to highlight the important findings from it.
First of all, the study is on asymptomatic people, so that’s people who don’t have any pain or any symptoms at all. 
The researchers found that 50% of people who are 40 years old had a disc bulge and 70% of 60-year-olds had a disc bulge. The incidence of degenerative wear and tear changes of the spine increases with age, and people could even have a disc herniation with NO symptoms. So it is really important if you do get an MRI of your spine, that your doctor correlates what is seen on the imaging with your symptoms. Dr. B has seen so many people with a disc herniation affecting the left side of the spine, but the symptoms are on the right.
If the MRI imaging and the history and physical examination findings all fit with a diagnosis, then you are good. But so often they do not correlate, and doctors are not entirely certain what generates the pain, the disc, the ligaments, muscles, tendons or nerves. In these cases, the key is to make sure you have a balanced spine by doing exercises. Remember, we don’t treat MRI’s we treat people.
The things to focus on are how your body functions and how you move on an everyday basis.
Why Stretching Makes You Feel Worse Long-Term
Now, if your lower back is painful and stiff, avoid the common recommendation to stretch by flexing, bending, twisting, and then holding that position.
The reason why is that this can result in tissue creep of the disc or the ligaments. That creep can further irritate any already irritated tissue.
Now, let me give you a little demonstration of something.
This is a City of Toronto parking ticket. This one is fully intact. If I just hold this little tab here, this perforated edge, like I’m holding a standard stretch, I’m trying to “stretch” this paper apart. It’s okay. It’s no problem.
Now, we’ve got another City of Toronto parking ticket. Let me irritate the tissue a little bit. I’m ripping that perforated edge just a little now. If I’m going to hold that with the same amount of pressure, just holding it, like a stretch, it just rips.
It’s already irritated, and by holding that standard pressure, sooner or later, we’re just going to further rip that already irritated or damaged tissue.
That’s why we don’t want to do static stretching. Instead, what we need to do is activate the surrounding musculature.
In this case, we’re activating the area around the lumbar spine, core stability, hips, and pelvis. By activating these muscles, we’re telling the brain, “Hey, we’ve got stability here! We can actually let go of this muscle tightness.”
That’ll help you to move more freely.
The reason why your brain tightens up the muscles is as a protective mechanism. You’ve already got these irritated tissues. Your brain wants to lock everything down so you don’t move and further injure tissues.
The best way to relieve this pain, stiffness, and tightness is to activate the stabilizing muscles around the area. That will tell your brain to relax. AND it sends signals to our body to repair the injured area.
Plus, we’re going to do this in movements and positions of everyday life.
Exercises for Lower Back Stiffness
We’re going to go through four exercises that activate the stabilizer muscles in the low back around the pelvis and the hips.
The key to performing these exercises is precision. Focus on the proper cues and execute them while thinking about three things:
- Your alignment
- Breathing naturally – relaxed
- Moving under control & maintaining the muscle activations you’re about to learn
You want to do this routine first thing in the morning and then 1-2 more times throughout the day. For example, you can do it first thing in the morning, once before you go to bed, and/or any time in between.
Exercise 1: Hip Bridge
The first exercise is the standard Hip Bridge. I’m sure you’ve done this before, and it’s good because you can do it in bed. If you wake up and your back is already painful and stiff, you could do it just lying in bed.
Lie down. You want to restore the natural curve in your lumbar spine. You should be able to fit your hands in between your low back and the ground. It should just be a little bit of pressure on your hand.
From there, make sure everything is relaxed. You can move your hips around a little bit and relax everything.
The first thing I’m going to do is activate my pelvic floor muscles. It’s also known as a kegel contraction. If you don’t know how to do it, just think of stopping your pee midstream.
Activate those deep pelvic floor muscles, then activate the feet.
This is something we call the Short and Skinny Foot or active arch. Use your foot muscles to pull the ball of your foot toward your heel to make it short. Then pull your metatarsals (the ball of your foot) together to make it skinny.
From there, activate the glutes. This is the third activation to focus on before you actually do any movement.
So now you’ve got pelvic floor, feet, and glutes on. Keep everything on and then slowly lift your hips up. Keep it straight so you’re not hyper-extending and overusing the low back muscles.
Hold there for 5 seconds.
Breathe naturally. Keep nice and relaxed, breathing. Keep all those activations on. Then lower down, keeping everything on all the way to the ground. Soft landing.
Then gradually let all those activations go. Relax, wiggle around, and that is the way we’re going to do the hip bridge.
- Activate pelvic floor
- Activate short & skinny foot
- Activate glutes
- Lift your hips
- Hold for 5 seconds
- Slowly lower your hips
- Release activations
Do 1-2 sets of 5 reps, holding for 5 seconds at the top.
We’re teaching our body that we’ve got activation of these muscles throughout this range of motion. You’re connected from your foot to your lumbar spine and breathing naturally, which means you’re not tense and you’re allowing your body to relax.
From this one exercise, you might find if your pain was a 5-7 out of 10, drop down a few notches.
Exercise 2: Standing Glute Contraction
The second exercise we’re going to go through is another very simple technique that requires your attention to detail because you can’t see a lot going on. It’s the Standing Glute Contraction.
This exercise is going to take those elements and those activation patterns that we learned in the Hip Bridge up to the standing position.
You’re standing, and you want to make sure you’re in good posture. Nice and tall, aligned but relaxed. You’re not holding these with a lot of tension here.
Keep even weight between your left and right foot, from your heel to your forefoot. The shoulders are back in a nice position. The chin is tucked and straight.
The reason why this positioning is so important is because we want to facilitate this. We want your body to remember this throughout the day.
When you’re hunched over, that’s a lot of body weight that your low back muscles have to support. Which just keeps adding to the tension. It’s also putting you in the flexed position, which is going to irritate those already potentially irritated tissues in the disc and/or ligaments.
So relaxed posture, up nice and tall. Focus on that good alignment.
You’re going to start off this exercise with your feet shoulder-width apart, and the first activation this time is the feet. We’re going to activate the feet to create that active arch. Try to pull your forefoot towards your heel and make your foot skinny. Think Short and Skinny Foot, but don’t curl your toes!
From here, activate the pelvic floor muscles. Then ramp up activation of the glutes. Gradually go from zero up as high as you can without any irritation or discomfort. Focus on slight internal rotation of the hips, turning the thighs slightly inwards. That will activate some deep hip muscles that are really important for stability, including the high adductors like the pectineus and the psoas.
Ramp up that activation. Once we’re ramped up, hold for 10 seconds while breathing naturally. Think relaxed breathing and maintaining good alignment and good posture.
When we’re done, we’re going to slowly ramp everything down. Relax everything and then just move around a little bit. Shake it out!
Once more time:
- Feet shoulder width apart
- Short & skinny foot
- Ramp up pelvic floor muscles
- Glute muscle activation with a slight bit of internal rotation, turning thighs inward towards each other
- Hold for 10 seconds, breathing deep, good posture
- Gradually let everything go.
Do 1-2 sets of 3 reps holding for 10 seconds.
That’s the Standing Clute Contraction with a little bit of internal rotation. That’s going to make sure that in the standing position, your body knows what stability and good posture feels like.
Exercise 3: Birddog
The third exercise is the classic core stability exercise, The Birddog. I first learned this from Dr. Stu McGill when I was of his students in the biomechanics class at the University of Waterloo. I’ve been using it ever since, personally and for clients.
It’s really helpful to get a stick. I use my old hockey stick. A dowel or broomstick also works, just something that can help you to maintain good alignment. The stick helps you ensure that you’re centered and maintaining your stability.
The setup position is knees underneath the hips and hands directly under the shoulders. Keep your elbow straight and locked out. Push away from the floor a little bit to activate the scapular stabilizers like the serratus anterior. That’s a good setup position.
Now, get your neutral spine. This is where the stick comes in handy. You can put the stick up on your back.
You’ll want three points of contact:
- Your head
- In between your shoulder blades
- Your tailbone
You should have a little bit of space between your low back and the stick. That indicates that you’ve got your natural lumbar curve. From here, what I recommend most people do is lift one leg straight out behind you, slowly, making sure you’re not shifting left or right or forwards or backward and maintaining those three points of contact. Once the leg is out straight, you lift the arm.
I like to go up at 45 degrees just to get a little more lower trapezius activation going. It’s a commonly underactive muscle.
Hold for 10 seconds, staying away from the floor, breathing naturally. From there, soft landing. You can lower one limb at a time or both at the same time. Then switch sides.
- Get in the setup position
- Align the stick with the 3 points of contact
- Extend your leg straight behind you, without shifting your weight
- Life the opposite arm up at 45 degrees thumb pointed up
- Hold for 10 seconds
- Lower slowly
Do 1-2 sets of 3 reps per side, holding for 10 seconds.
Now, the key here is not shifting your body weight left or right. Oftentimes, when you lift one leg up, you’ll shift your body weight away from that leg to give yourself the balance. But we don’t want to do that.
We want to maintain that position that we started in and force the stabilizer muscles to keep us in position. Those stabilizer muscles are the multifidus. Those are the main ones that we’re trying to hit here. The lumber multifidus and they’re really important for that deep spine stability that keeps your spine in place as you’re moving about. It also helps you to avoid excess wear and tear on the discs and ligaments.
Now, if you do have trouble and you’re not sure if you’re shifting left or right, what you could do is put your hip against the door frame. When you’re going up, say you’re lifting the left leg, the right hip will tend to shift right into the doorframe. That will help you keep aware of your positioning and to maintain better form during this exercise.
Exercise 4: Activated Squat
The fourth and final exercise is the Activated Squat. This is a movement pattern that we need in everyday life, getting up and down from chairs, up and down from the toilet, etc. This is something that when we tell our body how to do it with stability, it will help you to get that back pain relief. But then you’ll also keep it as you move throughout your day.
We’re going to layer in those activated patterns that we just learned in the Standing Glute Contraction. Then bring those into the squat movement pattern.
You don’t lose those activated patterns. That’s the key to this movement.
To do that, we’ve got feet shoulder-width apart again. First thing, we’re going to activate the intrinsic foot muscles. So make sure the foot is short by pulling the forefoot toward the heel and skinny across the metatarsals, which is right below the toes.
From here, pelvic floor activation. Then layer glute activation on top of that with a little bit of internal rotation of the hip. Turn those thighs slightly inwards now, maintaining good posture, going really slowly.
We’re going to squat down, maintaining that activation pattern that we started. You only go as low as you can go. Then you come up. But if you can go lower, go lower.
The key is to stop before you lose any of those activations that we started, and then you come up very, very slowly.
At the top, you go all the way to the top. Don’t let your hips flare out. That will look like your knees flaring out to the side. Keep that slight internal rotation at the top and then we let everything go.
Let’s go through that again. Shake it out a bit.
- Short & Skinny foot
- Activate pelvic floor
- Activate the glutes with slight internal rotation
- Very slowly squat and scan those activation patterns
- Stop and hold as low as you can while maintaining those activations
- Before you start to lose it, come back up
- Slowly release activations
Do 1-2 sets of 3-5 reps.
It doesn’t matter how low you go right now. We’re just trying to teach your body stability and activation.
This activated squat is going to help you to again get that stability that you need in the lumbar spine, in the pelvis, and in the hips. Then bring that stability into a movement pattern.
Basically, both hips are doing this at the same time, but through flexion and extension, which is useful for going upstairs, walking, bending down, whatever it is you need to do in your everyday life. You need stability to tell your back and your brain, “Everything is good here, just chill out, calm down, and relieve some tension and pain.”
Bonus Exercise for Long Hours at a Desk
Now one thing I’d like to show you if you work at a desk is that you can do the Activated Squat throughout your day, maybe every half hour or hour. Just do one to two reps.
So you’re sitting here, you’re working, and maybe you feel your back is starting to get a little bit achy. So you do it then the same thing, but you’re starting in a seated position.
- Activate the feet, short and skinny foot
- Activate the pelvic floor
- Activate the butt, so you’ll feel yourself get taller on your seat
- Extend your arms in front of you (if needed for balance) and rise slowly from your seat
- Then slowly lower back down into your seat, keeping those activations patterns
- At the bottom is when you let everything relax
Do this 1-2 reps every half hour or hour.
You might find that this will help you to get rid of any achiness that would creep up when you’re working at the office or at your desk, and it can help you to get back to 100% being pain-free a lot faster.
Now, this article is for quick relief. If you try out these exercises for lower back stiffness and like them, you’ll probably enjoy more articles linked below for more information and effective, easy exercises that you can do at home to help yourself move freely and without pain.
For a comprehensive solution addressing all of the root cases of low back pain, check out our Low Back Pain Solution program. This is going to take you from wherever you’re at to zero pain and to a low back that stays pain-free, no matter what it is you throw at it.
Thank you for joining me here today. Keep moving.
Did lots of stretching for 10 years, with limited success…in the end nothing helped. Spent crazy amount of money on Osteopaths and pyhsios. Many thanks to Precision Movement for helping me to return to the activities that I love pain-free!!!”