The Best Exercises for a Strained Lower Back

Back Pain. Athletic fitness woman rubbing the muscles of her lower back. Sport injury.

It's both difficult and dangerous to do significant workouts when you have a strained back, but that doesn't mean you can turn into a couch potato. In fact, it's more beneficial to do some simple exercises when you have lower back pain than to lie down and rest. It can be scary to move around with a lower back injury, but the reward is well worth it. Speed up your recovery time with some simple stretches.

Strain vs. Sprain

A strain is different from a sprain or a skeletal injury, such as a fracture. Strains are injuries to muscle or tendons, which attach muscles to bones. Sprains are injuries to ligaments, which attach bone to bone. Both are painful, but sprains are more problematic because ligaments take much longer to heal than muscles and tendons.

When you strain a muscle or tendon in the lower back, it means that the tissues have either been twisted, pulled or torn. After the injury, the area will become inflamed and painful. You'll generally feel pain in the lower back and possibly down into the top of your glutes, but not down your legs. You might feel like you can't bend forward without pain and the area that you injured will be tender. Muscle cramps are also common in the area of the injury.

Young woman streching legs street training fitness, sport.

Lower back strains can be painful and debilitating.

Stretching Exercises

With a few weeks of rest, a strained lower back will usually heal itself. You should avoid strenuous exercise during those few weeks until your back feels better. When you're injured you're more susceptible to re-injury, so it's important to scale back risk by taking it easy. Instead of doing your regular workout, you should do some simple stretching exercises to keep your back loose.

Knee to Chest

Use this stretch to work on one side of the back at a time.

How To: Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Grab the front of one knee with both hands and pull it in towards your chest. Pull the knee in as far as you can and hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch sides.

Single Hamstring Stretch

Sometimes when you injure your lower back, your hamstrings can tighten up. This exercise stretches your hamstrings and your lower back at the same time.

How To: Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet planted. Grab the back of one leg, right below the knee, with both hands. Pull it back slightly, then extend your knee to stretch your hamstring. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch sides.

Injury Prevention Exercises

During your recovery, you can also take time to focus on injury prevention. An important part of lower back injury prevention is core muscle-strengthening, as the ab muscles take stress off of the lower back because they perform the opposite action of the lower back muscles, which is to flex the spine. Your glutes also take pressure off of the spine because they extend your hips.

Modified Side Plank

This exercise strengthens the obliques, the muscles on the side of your torso, that can rotate the spine or stop it from rotating.

How To: Lie on your side with your elbow under your shoulder and legs stacked on top of each other. Your knees should be bent at 90 degrees. Lift your hips off the ground and keep your elbow and bottom knee planted on the ground. You should form a straight line from your head to your knees. Hold for as long as possible, then switch sides.

Hip Bridge

This glute strengthening exercises will teach you how to use your glutes, instead of your lower back, to extend your hips.

How To: Lie on your back with your feet planted and knees bent. Press your heels into the ground and lift your hips up as far as you can towards the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes when you reach the top, then slowly lower back down.