Lower back pain is more common than you'd think - 6 exercises a top physiotherapist recommends for easy relief

Plus, find out what the main causes are.

Lower back pain exercises: Two women stretching their backs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're searching the Internet for lower back pain exercises, chances are, you suffer from lower back pain. If that's you, you’re in good company. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a reported 619 million people worldwide suffer from this (quite literal) pain in the back and the NHS states that 80 out of 100 people will experience it at some point in their life. 

“The lower back is a matrix of interconnecting bones, joints, nerves, ligaments and muscles all working together to provide support and mobility,” Florence Penny, consultant musculoskeletal physiotherapist and founder of Flow Physio London explains. “Due to its complexity, it leaves you susceptible to injury and pain.”

Poor posture, muscle imbalances and overuse injuries are just three culprits of non-specific lower back pain, while stress and a lack of proper ergonomics at work or while working from home can also be the cause. So what's the solution? Well, along with perfecting your posture, having some great relaxation techniques at your fingertips and setting up a workspace that best supports you, it's worth incorporating lower back pain exercises into your day-to-day.

Whether it’s a yoga pose (like a cat/cow) or a thoracic spine stretch (like a thread-the-needle), these exercises can help you strengthen, mobilise and stretch your lower back, while reinforcing other muscles that make up your core and surround your spine (like your abs, erector spinae and lats).

Wondering where to start? We’ve got your back (literally). We spoke to Penny to find out the main causes of lower back pain and discover the best lower back pain exercises for relief. 

While you’re here, check out our guides to yoga for lower back pain, yoga for flexibility, and yoga for bloating, too.

Your guide to lower back pain, plus 6 best exercises to try 

What are the main causes of lower back pain?

According to Penny, lower back pain can stem from both biomechanical and lifestyle choices, but the main three causes include:

  • A sedentary lifestyle — unfortunately, modern lifestyles often involve prolonged periods of inactivity and long hours sitting at desks. Case in point: the latest stats from UK Active research suggest that some people who WFH sit for as much as fourteen (!) hours a day.
  • Incorrect posture — this can come into play whether you’re sitting, standing, looking at your phone (read: tech neck) or lifting heavy objects incorrectly in the gym. If the latter sounds like you, our expert guide on how much weight you should start lifting will come in handy.
  • Lack of regular exercise — Penny tells us that the key to a ‘healthier’ posture is movement. “Your body isn't designed to stay in one position for a prolonged period of time hunched over a desk,” she adds.

Age-related changes, such as reduced muscle mass and decreased bone density, can also lead to back pain. Penny explains: “The effect of which is more pronounced in women due to declining oestrogen levels during the perimenopause.”

And, as we know, emotional stress, anxiety and depression can all contribute to muscle tension and altered pain perception. Without the use of effective relaxation techniques or learning how to manage stress, all this tension can “worsen or lead to back pain”, Penny tells us.

Of course, it goes without saying that if your lower back pain persists or last for an extended period of time, it's always worth booking an appointment with your GP to make sure something else isn't at play.

What is the best exercise to relieve lower back pain?

Ready to rid your lower back pain? To help you do just that, Penny has compiled a stretching workout complete with her go-to exercises. 

These stretches will help you build strength, stability and flexibility in your back and many of the muscles surrounding it. 

So roll out your gym mat, set 20 minutes aside and prepare to feel the relief. 

1. Thread the needle

What? Not only is this a full-body stretch, but, as Penny explains: “This exercise also helps to mobilise the rib cage and thoracic spine through internal rotation and allows a deep stretch of the lats.” In other words: it’s a super satisfying stretch that’s bound to ease an achy back. 

How to? Start in an all-fours position with the knees under the hips and hands under the shoulders. Keeping the hands where they are on the floor, rock the hips back until you are sitting on your heels.

Then, reach the right arm through the space between your left armpit and the floor. Your gaze should be under the left armpit. 

How long? 15 to 20 seconds on each side.

2. Prone extension

What? Perhaps better known as the "Superman pose," prone extension will help you improve the stability and strength of your erector spinae muscles — AKA the muscles that run parallel to your spine. This should help strengthen your back. And as we know, a strong back will help better your posture and lower your risk of injury. 

How to? Lie on your front with your feet positioned hip-distance apart. Position your hands, one on top of the other, underneath your forehead with elbows wide or by your side, depending on what you find most comfortable. 

Gently press your pubic bone into the mat. As you inhale, draw your navel to your spine and start to lift the upper body away from the mat, keeping your body in one long line, avoiding jolting the head backwards to keep your neck in line with your spine. Exhale as you gently soften the upper body back into the mat. 

How long? 4 to 8 repetitions. 

3. Shoulder bridge

What? Along with mobilising your spine, a shoulder bridge will help to build strength and flexibility in your glutes, hamstrings, back and abs. So it’s a good all-rounder. 

How to? Inhale and tuck your tailbone towards you. As you exhale, start to peel the spine away from the mat, one vertebrate at a time, engaging the glutes and bringing yourself into a shoulder bridge.

Inhale at the top and as you exhale, start to melt the spine back into the mat one vertebrae at a time. Repeat. 

How long? 6 to 10 repetitions. 

4. Cat/cow

What? This yoga pose is often performed in Iyengar yoga, Hatha yoga and Ashtanga yoga to help shift the thoracic spine gently through flexion and extension — which Penny tells us will help boost mobility in your back.

How to? Start in an all-fours position with knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Gently lift the mid back towards the sky while dropping the forehead towards the floor to adopt the ‘cat’ position. Your gaze should be back between your knees.

Next, gently push your chest towards the floor and lift the forehead to adopt the cow position. Be sure not to overextend the cervical spine. Your gaze should be toward the floor a few metres in front of you. Repeat this flexion-extension motion, gradually teasing the range

How long? 8 to 10 repetitions.

5. Bird dog

What? "This is a fantastic movement to integrate rotational core control with gluteal activation and scapular inward rotation,” Penny says. Meaning? Along with engaging your back and core muscles, it will also hit your bum and shoulders. So you get a lot of bang for your buck. 

How to? Start on all fours (yogis will know this as the tabletop position), with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Push your right leg backwards, pointing your toe, and extend through the hip rather than your lower back. 

As you do so, stretch your left hand forward. While doing so, ensure the rib cage is neutral and the core is engaged ensuring not to over-arch through the spine. Repeat on the other side. 

How long? 12 repetitions for one to three sets. 

6. Dead bug

What? Deadbugs are great for helping you activate your deep abdominal and lower spine muscles and better your pelvic stability. Which in turn can help you strengthen the muscles around your back, and create a stronger base. 

How to? Lay on your mat and allow the shoulders and lower back to fall heavy to the floor, drawing the shoulders down away from your ears.

Engage your core and lift your arms out in front of you and your legs into a 90-degree position. On an exhale, slowly lower your right arm and left leg. While doing so, be careful not to arch the back and flare your ribs. Repeat this on the opposite side.

How long? 12 repetitions for one to three sets.

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How to ease lower back pain?

Maintaining a good posture, building stronger muscles in your back and the areas surrounding it, and moving your body is crucial to easing lower back pain. 

If you’re suffering from back pain right now, our expert, Florence Penny, consultant musculoskeletal physiotherapist and founder of Flow Physio London, suggests looking at your current movement routine. She says: “Address issues arising from repetitive movements or improper heavy lifting by diversifying your routine. Then adopt a comprehensive approach that encompasses various activities that sit into the three core pillars: strength, stability and flexibility.”

Along with this, completing exercises — like the ones listed in our guide to back pain relief — will help. But you could set aside some time to try a range of yoga for lower back pain poses or work on your strength in this area with these back exercises.

Rebecca Shepherd
Health Contributor

Rebecca, or Becks, is a freelance journalist with more than ten years of experience in the industry. She specialises in all things health and lifestyle and has written for a number of brands including Women's Health, Stylist, the Evening Standard, Good Housekeeping, The Telegraph, Live Science, Tom's Guide and Fit&Well. Becks also writes copy for a number of brands and small businesses. 

When she's not weight training, tracking down the best gym leggings, reading a book or at her desk typing away, you'll find her in the kitchen perfecting a new recipe or bake.