Lower back pain is the leading cause of disability in the world, the number one reason people miss work, and many athletes I have coached have missed workouts because of it.  The first 2 facts are terrible, but missing workouts too, c’mon! 😉  The majority of back pain in athletic populations is caused by muscles becoming tighter due to fatigue and overuse.  This fatigue can come from many areas ranging from an increase of training workload to a tough race.  Fortunately, for most sufferers of back pain there are a few easy exercises you can do to loosen up the muscles and increase the joint range of motion to help decrease the pain.  There are many conflicting studies regarding when to stretch and how long to hold the stretches for, this is what I have seen work best for me and the athletes/patients I have worked with.  If you have seen studies you like, or have a different opinion, please post it under the comments section, I would love to know more!

How to stretch

  • Ideal best time to stretch is POST WORKOUT.  The reason for this is because stretching a muscle statically will decrease its ability to contract which will result in a decreased amount of power produced.  We train too hard trying to increase our power and strength to reduce it right before our event!
    • Instead, try a dynamic stretching routine pre-workout if you feel tight.  Performing dynamic stretches will improve your range of motion, and you won’t lose any contractile force of the muscle, a win-win.
  • Stretches should be held for 30 seconds minimum.  Physiologically, it takes your muscle fibers ~30 seconds to relax enough to make static stretching beneficial and allow the muscle fibers to lengthen.
  • Stretches should be performed in a comfortable range of motion, so no crying because it hurts so much, but you also want to feel like you are doing something too.
  • Alternate each leg with each consecutive stretch, so as 1 side is resting, the other side is being stretched.
  • Perform the stretches 2-3 times each.
  • Stretch out 2-3 times daily if you are really having an issue with your back.  For maintenance, or if your back only hurts after an intense event/race, once a day is okay.

Pictures of my favorite stretches to help with low back pain

Lumbar/Thoracic/Cervical Spine Mobility

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Round your head, pull your belly towards your spine and round your lower back.
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Bring your head back, sink your middle back and lower back towards the floor, and bring your bum towards your shoulders.

Lumbar Spine Mobility

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If you are super tight here, just start on your forearms and elbows.  Remember to relax your buttocks.

Hamstrings

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Proximal Stretch: Knee straight, toes towards your head.  You will feel this one towards your hip more.
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Distal Stretch: Knee straight, try and pull your toes towards you (if you can reach that low).  You will feel this one towards your knee more.

Piriformis

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Place your foot on your opposite knee, reach for your thigh, and pull towards your chest until a deep stretch is felt in the buttocks.  Sometimes this causes knee pain, if so only perform the stretch below.
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Pull your leg up and then across your body until a deep stretch is felt in the buttocks.  Try and keep your shoulders flat and try not to rotate your lower back too much.

Glutes

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Pull your leg towards your chest.

Latissimus Dorsi

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Sit your buttocks back and reach your arms forwards.  You will feel a stretch along your outer torso and towards your arms or back depending on how tight you are.
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This is just Banjo showing off 😉

For more information on GC Coaching and how we can help you improve your fitness, please visit www.gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in biology, is a USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport Certified, and a Category 3 road and cyclocross racer. He is the owner of GC Coaching and the creator and director of P2 Cycling. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

14 comments

  1. For the first piriformis stretch, I have been told to engage the foot – move your toes towards your knee, to protect the knee. This is on the stretching leg that has its ankle resting on the other knee.

  2. On the Proximal stretch, I’ve had great results by doing it with shoes on, park the heel of your foot of the stretch leg on the toe of the non-stretch leg, and reach down, bending at the waist.

  3. I have be having successful back pain for most of my adult life. You have very good recommendations here Shane. Stretching is often done too short an interval at ~12 seconds, which you indicated is way too short. It’s amazing to stretch with some and feel how long it really takes for them to relax before real stretching can begin. A nice long stretch is critical. I have found that in my case, most of the pain is from the sciatic nerves running along the backside of my gluteus through to my lower back. Stretching on the floor, even on a mat, pushed too hard on the nerves and was counter productive. However, if I started my day by doing two light stretches while I was still in bed, I could manage to move normally when getting up. This is just something that works for me to help with keeping my flexibility and being able to get going immediately. It may reduce some power, but without it and other stretching, I would not have ever dreamed of biking centurion rides with Gorgeous, my Iranman wife. Thank you for posting a great article!!!

  4. Hey Shayne great article but may I suggest adding stretches for the hip flexors. Most people forget to stretch the hip flexors and with cyclist these muscles are very commonly shortened somply due to the biomechanics of the sport itself. I have worked with many patients who are cyclists and rowers (who are also susceptible to shortened hip flexors due to demands of the sport and its equipement) and have had great success with eliminating chronic low back by elongating the hip flexors. Just my experience!

  5. Given that the piriformis is an external hip rotator the stretch you have tagged as piriformis stretch is stretching gluteus medius and minimus and tensor fascia latae.
    Add in hip flexor stretch

    1. Hi Sallie – You would be correct if I was stretching the piriformis below 90 degrees of hip flexion, however I am not. The piriformis reverses its role and actually becomes a hip internal rotator when the hip is flexed over 90 degrees. The leg over stretch does include the glute med/min, but I would have to disagree with you including the TFL as there is not any hip extension nor upward rotation of the ilium.

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