Back Exercises for Relieving Muscle Tension and Pain

Many times back pain is caused or made worse by muscle tension, especially when the tension is at or near-spinal joints, hip joints, and/or shoulder joints. So when your back hurts at the end of a day or after a workout, consider trying this gentle exercise sequence.

Many of the moves in the pages that follow are also used in physical therapy to help prepare muscles to be "performers," that is, to recruit them for use in basic functional movements such as pain-free walking, bending, reaching, and more. So if you know you need to get strong in the core, this quick and easy program may be effective in preparing you for more challenging work.

It all starts with breathing and body awareness.


Warm Up With Diaphragmatic Breathing

Woman laying on her yoga mat
Westend61/Getty Images

Lie down in a supine (hook lying) position, i.e. on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands on your abdomen.

Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. As you inhale, your lower rib cage will likely expand and you'll feel your hands rise as your abdomen rises.  Exhale through pursed lips. and apply light pressure to the abdominal area with your hands, to "help" the process along.

Spend a few moments this way; as you do, consciously allow your body to relax, and to be supported by the floor.


Establish Neutral Spine and Draw In

Woman lying on mat
John Freeman/Getty Images

To quickly establish neutral spine, tilt your pelvis all the way forward the all the way back a few times. Then settle it in between these two extremes.

From there, you'll perform the drawing in maneuver. Take a nice deep inhale. Exhale, and as you do, draw in your abdominal muscles towards your spine. Let the exhale help you "hollow" your lower abdominal area.


Release Your Back With the Knees to Chest

Woman holding her knees to her chest
Blend Images - ​Jose Luis ​Pelaez​ Inc/Getty Images

You are now ready for a great back releasing moves, the knees to chest. Place one arm around the knee on the same side, and bring the knee up towards your chest. As you do this, allow the bend in the knee and also the hip to increase (if that is possible without pain or discomfort).

Keeping the first knee up, repeat with the other knee. Your end position will be with both knees into your chest and your arms wrapped lightly around the top of your shin bones (which is located just under your knees).

In this position, you may well feel a delicious low back stretch.  If so, enjoy!


Pelvic Tilt

Pelvic tilt
Ben Goldstein

Earlier in this sequence, you performed a couple of ad hoc pelvic tilts in order to establish neutral spine. Great! So you already have an introduction to what you'll next do as an "official" exercise. The pelvic tilt is a starter exercise for core and low back strengthening, as well as posture improvement.

In the hooklying position, inhale, then exhale. During the exhale, draw your abdomen toward your back (and the floor). Allow this to naturally pull the bottom of your pelvis up off the floor. Note: This will likely be a very small movement, especially at first. That's okay. With practice, the range of the movement will likely develop.

Inhale and return to your starting position, gently replacing your pelvis and spine.

Repeat a few times. As you progress, try, more and more, to use your lower abdominals to power the movement. Ideally, your butt muscles will remain relaxed; in this way, you develop the kind of strength that supports your internal core.


Relax Your Upper Back With an Arm Exercise

Woman lifting arms into air
Deposit Photos

Another aspect of core stabilization is strength in the upper abdominals and good shoulder mechanics. Here's a simple move that may help address these vital concerns.  

While in the hooklying position, with your arms straight (but elbows not locked) and down by your sides, inhale then exhale and raise your arms up. The goal is to bring them to a 90-degree angle with the floor, but if you have pain, a frozen shoulder or other problem go as far as you can comfortably.

Try to keep your trunk stationary as you move your arms. This should work your abdominals, and that's a good thing. Let the movement come from your shoulder blades in back; it's as though they slide downward as a way of leveraging the weight of your arms upward.

Was this page helpful?