Back Exercises for Relieving Muscle Tension and Pain

Your back tension and pain may be eased by doing the right kind of exercises, which are those that strengthen your core. Many of the exercises here are taught by physical therapists to help make muscles "performers"—that is, to prepare them for use in basic functional movements such as pain-free walking, bending, reaching, and more.

The quick and easy exercise routine outlined here all starts with breathing and body awareness. All of the movements are performed while lying on your back.

Warm Up With Diaphragmatic Breathing

Woman laying on her yoga mat

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It's always good to start your workout with a warm-up. This breathing one can help you get in touch with your body and begin to release tension.

How It's Done

  • Lie down in a hook-lying position, which is 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 while applying light pressure to your abdomen with your hands, to "help" the process along.
  • Spend a few moments lying there peacefully.
  • Consciously allow your body to relax and be supported by the floor.

Neutral Spine and Draw In

Woman lying on mat

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Now it's time to get started with movements designed to relax your back muscles and get rid of that pain.

A "neutral" spine is one that's properly aligned in its natural position rather than rotated in any way.

How It's Done

To quickly establish a neutral spine:

  • Tilt your pelvis all the way forward and 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 while drawing your abdominal muscles in toward your spine.
  • Let the exhale help you "hollow" your lower abdominal area.

Release With Knees to Chest

Woman holding her knees to her chest

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You are now ready for a great back-releasing move—knees to chest. In this position, you may well feel a delicious low back stretch. Enjoy!

How It's Done

  • Place one arm around the knee on the same side.
  • Bring the knee up towards your chest.
  • As you do this, allow the bends in your knee and hip to increase, but only if you can bend that far 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 each shin (the front of your lower leg).

Pelvic Tilt

Ben Goldstein

Earlier in this sequence, you performed a couple of basic pelvic tilts in order to establish a neutral spine. You'll use that movement again as part of this exercise.

The pelvic tilt is a starter for core and low back strengthening as well as posture improvement.

How It's Done

  • In the hook-lying 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 abdominal muscles to power the movement. Ideally, your butt muscles will remain relaxed. This way, you develop the kind of strength that supports your internal core.

Arm Exercise for the Upper Back

Woman lifting arms into air
Deposit Photos

Important aspects of core stabilization are strength in the upper abdominals and good shoulder mechanics. This arm exercise is a simple move that may help address these vital concerns. 

How It's Done

  • In the hook-lying position, start with your arms down by your sides and straight, but don't lock your elbows.
  • 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 another problem, just go as far as you can while still comfortable.
  • 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.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Anderson BE, Bliven KCH. The Use of Breathing Exercises in the Treatment of Chronic, Nonspecific Low Back PainJournal of Sport Rehabilitation. 2017;26(5):452-458. doi:10.1123/jsr.2015-0199

  3. Yokogawa M, Kurebayashi T, Ichimura T, Nishino M, Miaki H, Nakagawa T. Comparison of two instructions for deep breathing exercise: non-specific and diaphragmatic breathingJ Phys Ther Sci. 2018;30(4):614–618. doi:10.1589/jpts.30.614

  4. Bhadauria EA, Gurudut P. Comparative effectiveness of lumbar stabilization, dynamic strengthening, and Pilates on chronic low back pain: randomized clinical trialJ Exerc Rehabil. 2017;13(4):477–485. doi:10.12965/jer.1734972.486

  5. Takaki S Ms Pt, Kaneoka K PhD Md, Okubo Y PhD Pt. Analysis of muscle activity during active pelvic tilting in sagittal planePhys Ther Res. 2016;19(1):50–57. doi:10.1298/ptr.e9900

  6. Atalay E, Akova B, Gür H, Sekir U. Effect of Upper-Extremity Strengthening Exercises on the Lumbar Strength, Disability and Pain of Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled StudyJ Sports Sci Med. 2017;16(4):595–603.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.