The 5 Best Back Stretches To Improve Back Flexibility

The 5 Best Back Stretches To Improve Back Flexibility

clock-circular-outlinePosted 8 Jan 2020

A dull ache in your back or a niggling pain you can’t seem to shift? We’ve all been there. More often than not, you can identify the exact cause of back pain: you slept in an awkward position, you didn’t brace your core properly when deadlifting, or you’ve just got really bad DOMS from a heavy back session yesterday. Other times, back pain appears seemingly randomly. But one thing is for sure: Back pain is never welcome whenever it dawns.

It’s at this point you may find yourself turning attention to an often neglected part of training: stretching. Whilst it isn’t always fun, there are no two ways about it: Back stretches can help prevent and ease pesky back pain. Stretching your back can also improve your flexibility, range of motion, and mobility, allowing you to perform exercises with proper form.

But whilst it’s all very well turning to back stretches in the hour of need, prevention is often much better than cure. Implementing back mobility exercises into your workout program before the back pain occurs can help reduce the chance of back pain and discomfort in the future. And to do that, you need to be doing the right back stretches, at the right times.

Luckily, we’ve got the best back stretches to increase back mobility, ease tightness, and allow you to hit your next session pain-free. Grab your yoga mat and get ready for some serious stretching.


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How Do You Stretch Your Back?

There’s no easy way to say it: Regular stretching of your back muscles will help increase your back's flexibility, range of motion and ease tightness. Back stretches may not be glamorous, and they often aren’t fun, but daily back stretching will improve your lifts, giving you better form and range of motion, and reduce the likelihood of back pain (as well as helping to ease existing back pain).

There are two main ways you can stretch your back:

  • Dynamic back stretches

  • Static back stretches

Dynamic stretches are done before your workout. They are active movements that mimic the exercises you are about to do to improve circulation and enhance performance [1, 2].

Static stretches, on the other hand, should be done at the end of your session. These stretches involve holding a position for a set amount of time (usually 15-30 seconds) to increase flexibility and reduce muscle soreness and off-set fatigue [2].

If you’re looking to increase your back flexibility, improve your posture, and prevent back pain, you should implement both dynamic and static back stretches into your routine—which we will cover below. To make things easy, we’ve split our back stretches into upper back and lower back stretches.

The Best Back Stretches For The Upper Back

First up: upper back stretches. To determine the best upper back stretches, we need to first understand the anatomy of the upper back.

The upper back is located on the thoracic spine, which consists of 12 vertebrae that support the neck, rib cage, and soft tissue. The thoracic spine is naturally less mobile than the neck and lower back as it is built for stability.

What Muscles Impact The Upper Back?

The four muscles of the upper back are:

  • Latissimus dorsi

  • Rhomboids

  • Levator scapulae

  • Trapezius

These large upper back muscles are prone to developing strains and tightness, which start suddenly or gradually over time (such as sitting at a desk with poor posture). Effective back stretches will target all of these muscle groups.

The Best Upper Back Stretches:

1. Wall Angels

If you sit down all day or have been hitting your upper body workouts hard, Wall Angels are

a great dynamic back stretch to activate muscles in the upper back and chest. They involve standing against a wall and moving your arms from a ‘W’ to a ‘Y’ position, helping improve posture by lengthening the chest and back muscles.

How To Do Wall Angels:

  1. Place your back against the wall, with your feet about 20cm in front of you and your legs slightly bent.

  2. Keep a neutral spine by drawing your belly button toward your spine and drawing your ribcage in and down.

  3. Place your arms at 90 degrees on the wall with your elbow and back of your hands in contact with it.

  4. Slowly straighten your arms, moving them up the wall to above your head in a Y position. Make sure to keep contact with the wall with your back, head, and hands the whole time.

  5. Pause, then slowly lower your arms back down. Repeat.

2. Open Book Rotations

A great back stretch for the mid and upper back, Open Book Rotations increase the range of motion and relieve tension. It involves lying on one side and opening up your chest and shoulders, with the aim of placing your wrist on the floor behind you – just like opening a book (hence the name). It looks easy, but it’s actually quite tricky – so don’t be frustrated if you can’t get your hand to the floor from the outset. Whilst these are traditionally a dynamic stretch, they can be made into a static back stretch by holding the stretch for 20-30 seconds on each side.

How To Do Open Book Rotations:

  1. Lie on your side, with your arms straight out in front of you stacked on top of each other. Your legs should also be stacked, bent up at 90 degrees.

  2. Move your top arm, rotating it over your body until your hand reaches behind you, as close to the ground as possible. Your chest will open up towards the ceiling, but your hips and legs should stay fixed in the starting position.

  3. Pause, then return the arm back to the starting position.

  4. Repeat for 10 reps, then turn over and repeat on the other side.

3. Wall Slides

Wall Slides are a great dynamic back stretch that increases mobility in the shoulders and upper back—particularly in the traps. They train your body to sit straighter and counteract slouching, which can help prevent back pain and keep injuries at bay.

How To Do Wall Slides:

  1. Stand facing the wall, placing your forearms against it at a 90-degree angle, fingers facing the ceiling, and palms facing one another.

  2. Slide your forearms up the wall, keeping them in contact with the wall as you do.

  3. Straighten your arms as much as you can, holding the position at the top for a few

    seconds before sliding your forearms back down the wall to the starting position, then repeat.

To make wall slides more difficult, put a mini band around your wrists, putting tension on the band as you press your hands up.

The Best Back Stretches For The Lower Back

The lower back is located in the lumbar region of the spine. This region is foundational to supporting our weight and allows us to stand, walk, and perform activities. It’s a complex structure consisting of five vertebrae, deep muscles (which help stabilize the spine and maintain proper alignment), and superficial muscles (which assist in movement and provide strength).

What Muscles Impact The Lower Back?

The muscles that attach to the lumbar spine include:

  • Latissimus Dorsi

  • Iliopsoas (hip flexors)

  • Paraspinals (group of three muscles is located along the length of your spine that help you extend, side bend and rotate)

This is the region where most back pain occurs, so implementing back stretches before and after your workout and/or on a dedicated rest day can help prevent back pain.

The Best Lower Back Stretches:

1. Downdog To Cobra

Taken straight from your Sunday morning yoga session, the Downward Dog into Cobra Stretch is an excellent back stretch. It places the spine—and back—in a controlled level of flexion, which helps to extend and stretch not only your lower back but your hamstrings, calves, shoulders, and arms, contributing to better posture and stretching out the whole body. This dynamic back stretch is suitable to get blood flowing through your muscles at the start of your workout but can also be used as a static stretch by holding each position for 20-30 seconds.

How To Do The Cobra To Downdog Stretch:

  1. Lying flat on a mat, place your hands just in front of your hips

  2. Straighten your arms, keeping your hips in contact with the ground

  3. Look up and arch your back

Moving to the Downward Dog:

  1. Keep your hands in the same position

  2. Lift your hips off the ground, as high as possible while keeping your legs straight

  3. Move on to your toes, pushing your palms into the ground

  4. Move your head in between your arms, looking back at your feet

2. Supine Spine Twist

Simple but effective, the supine spine twist exercise is a great back stretch, lengthening the back muscles and increasing mobility in the area. Performed lying on your back, the supine spine twist is generally safer than other twisting back stretches and is an effective way to relieve muscle tension—not only in the back but also in the hips and glutes.

Again, this back stretch can be dynamic or static. We prefer to perform the supine spine twist as a static stretch, relaxing into the stretch for a few breaths to release tension and promote calmness. This back flexibility exercise feels SO good; you'll love it.

How To Do The Supine Spine Twist

  1. Lie down on a mat, facing to ceiling

  2. Place your arms directly to the side to help stabilize your body

  3. Bring your knees up, creating a right angle with your legs

  4. Slowly lower both legs to one side, keeping your back flat on the ground and head facing upwards

  5. Relax the legs to the side, before slowly lifting back to the middle and repeating on the other side

3. Jefferson curl

The Jefferson Curl is a dynamic back stretch that will lengthen and stretch the back and hamstrings, two key areas that contribute to lower back pain and discomfort. Few exercises take the spine through such a long range of motion, and the deep back stretch experienced at the bottom of the movement as the weight pulls you down is not comparable to any other movement. It will also increase your range of motion and mobility, so if you're an athlete who needs to be able to touch your toes, the Jefferson Curl will help you get there.

Start with a light weight and focus on keeping the weight close to your body as you lower it down. For a deeper back stretch, stand on a box to increase the range of motion.

How To Do The Jefferson Curl:

  1. Bend your knees and keep a straight back when picking up your weight

  2. Place your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the weight with both hands

  3. Relax your arms, and curl your back over as if you were trying to touch your toes

  4. Keep your legs and arms straight during the entire stretch

  5. Relax at the bottom of the movement and exhale, embracing the stretch

  6. Hold for a few seconds before slowly returning to the top, and repeat

4. Kneeling thoracic twists

Thoracic back mobility exercises are great for relieving the lower and mid-back from tightness and aches. The Kneeling Thoracic Twist does just that, improving back mobility and reducing tension in the middle of your back. If you find yourself sitting at a desk all day, rounding your thoracic spine, doing some kneeling thoracic twists is a great back stretch to relieve mid-back stiffness.

How To Do The Kneeling Thoracic Twists:

  1. Start by kneeling down on one knee

  2. Place both palms flat on the ground in line with your front foot

  3. Rotate your torso, lifting your arm up and over your front leg

  4. Twist until your shoulder, elbow, and hand is inline pointing towards the ceiling.

  5. Keep your neck and head neutral throughout the movement, following the torso naturally

  6. Slowly return to the start

Perform this back mobility exercise on both sides.

5. Cat-Cow

Another stretch taken from the trusty yoga textbook, The Cat Cow Pose, helps stimulate and activate the spine and surrounding muscles, stretching the back, neck, and shoulders.

Flowing between the two poses helps promote back flexibility, releasing tension in the aforementioned areas. A great back mobility exercise for before and after your training!

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How To Do The Cat-Cow Pose:

  1. Start kneeling down with your knees below your hips and hands below your shoulders

  2. From the 'tabletop' position, with a flat, straight back and neutral neck position

  3. Lower into the cow pose, exhaling and pushing your stomach down, arching your back

    while keeping your shoulders and hips in the same position

  4. Move back through the 'tabletop' position, inhaling and pushing the spine up, arching into the Cat Pose

  5. Maintain a steady flow throughout the Cat-Cow pose

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What Causes Lower Back Pain?

The lower back is the most common location of back pain. From a dull ache niggling in your lower back to that struggle of leaning over to tie your shoelaces – whether it’s the result of sightly wrong form during yesterday’s heavy deadlift session or a more persistent issue, there are a number of reasons for back pain:

  • Lifting with incorrect form or lifting too heavy

  • Insufficient warm-up, cool-down, and mobility exercises

  • Poor Seated Posture

  • Sitting For Long Periods Of Time

  • Tight Hamstrings and/or Glutes

Sometimes, the reason isn’t clear, but implementing a proper back mobility routine alongside core strengthening exercises will help create a strong trunk and reduce future back pain.

It's important to remember that if you suffer from back pain, seeking professional help for a clear diagnosis and exercise guidance is essential

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The Benefits Of Back Stretches

  • Improved flexibility: Back stretches increase back flexibility and range of motion, helping you perform your lifts with proper form and reducing the risk of injury. They also help you move with more ease through everyday life.

  • Increased blood flow: Stretches (particularly dynamic ones) are an important precursor to many workouts. Doing some simple back stretches before your workout increases blood flow in the muscles, aiding performance and physically preparing you for the workout to come.

  • Better Recovery: We’ve all experienced DOMS at some point in our lives, but back DOMS are not something we would wish upon anyone. Stretching your back can help alleviate post-workout soreness, helping you recover faster and hit your next session

    with the same intensity.

  • Improved posture: We probably don’t need to tell you the dangers of sitting at a desk all day. While back stretches can’t undo the damage from being desk-bound, they can encourage proper alignment and improve posture.

  • Help prevent back pain: Tight muscles lead to a decreased range of motion, which is

    the ideal recipe for back pain. Luckily, regular back stretches can help heal existing injuries and prevent future back pain [3].

FAQs About Back Stretches

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Adding Back Stretches To Your Routine

Back stretches may not be the most exciting part of your workout, but they can make all the difference when it comes to improving posture, flexibility, form, and injury prevention. Consistency is key with back stretches: While moving through a few of these back stretches every other day will not take long, you need to stick with it to see the results.

Looking for a little more support? Check out mobility workouts on The Gymshark Training App. There are plenty of pre- and post-workout stretching routines and full-body yoga & mobility sessions to work through.

Find the method you enjoy, and get stretching – you’ll be surprised at how fast you notice the results.

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WRITTEN BY: Alex Kirkup-Lee

Alex is an inhouse Content Writer for Gymshark’s Health & Conditioning categories. A qualified Personal Trainer, CrossFit Level 1 and Functional Fitness Coach, Alex is experienced in training clients from a range of sporting backgrounds. With a passion for functional training, her favorite workout is anything that includes deadlifts, rowing, or wallballs.

Alex Kirkup-LeeBy Alex Kirkup-Lee

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