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The Best Exercises for a Stiff Low Back (and WHY it’s Stiff in the First Place)

If you have a stiff low back, while you may care why it is stiff, I’ve found that most athletes initially care more about unlocking that stiffness than they do understanding why it’s there. However, once the stiffness is unlocked, then (and usually only then) do most folks want to know why their low back became stiff so they can prevent it from happening in the future! In this article, we’ll go in that order –

  1. Exercises to Unlock a Stiff Low Back
  2. Why the Low Back Becomes Stiff
Stiff Low Back

The Best Exercises for a Stiff Low Back

Banded Cat/Cow

Cat/cow is a great mobility exercise for the back. However, athletes typically perform this exercise by moving the parts of their back that already move well and not fully utilizing the parts of their spine that don’t move as well. Adding a band to the mix allows you to directly target the parts of the back that are stiff.

You can simply place the band on the stiff area and use it to mobilize the stiffness by putting more tension on the band. Or, you can put less tension on the band and use it for feedback so that you can better access motion in the stiff areas of your spine.

Jefferson Curl

The Jefferson curl often becomes athletes’ exercise of choice to mobilize a stiff low back that they didn’t expect they would fall in love with. In the gym, having a “straight back” or “neutral spine” is drilled into coaching. Because of this, most athletes don’t pause to think that moving outside ‘perfect’ technique is something that they should do.

There’s a lot of benefits to moving outside perfect technique (most notably it teaches you how to self-correct your technique by giving you greater awareness of what your body is doing). The benefit that’s most applicable to back mobility though is this: if you don’t move your spine through it’s full range of motion, it will stiffen up.

A Jefferson curl takes your spine to end range in what we call lumbar flexion (bending forwards). This and going to full end range in lumbar extension (bending backwards) is important. However, our society has created a lot of fear around bending forward and rounding your back, so most avoid it. But, a health spine NEEDS flexion, just like it NEEDS extension. Motion is lotion and if you don’t move it, you lose it.

Thoracolumbar Junction – Snag Strap

Sometimes a stiff low back isn’t a stiff low back. Instead, what’s really happening is that stiffness is coming from the thoracolumbar junction. This is the area in the back where the lumbar spine (low back) and thoracic spine (mid back) meet.

We’ve written a whole article on the thoracolumbar junction, and if the above two exercises aren’t unlocking your low back, we suggest checking it out. It’s one of the most commonly missed forms of back pain (and stiffness).

The exercise below uses a snag strap to target the thoracolumbar junction. This is one of our favorite ways to mobilize that area and you can use the same technique in the low back as well. Just take the band and move it a bit lower!

Reverse Hypers

For athletes and active individuals, a stiff low back can also come from a back that doesn’t have enough strength to do what you’re asking of it. Now, this doesn’t mean that your back isn’t strong. It does mean that your back isn’t strong enough relative to the rest of your body.

This can be really frustrating for athletes (I already work out, what do you mean my back isn’t strong enough?) and I get it. I truly do. When I was a semi professional speedskater, this was me. I was strong, but my back was not strong enough relative to my leg strength. My squats, deadlifts, and endurance on the ice were limited not by my legs, but by my back. And, of course, as an athlete, I didn’t stop until it was arguably too late and I was in too much back pain. (That’s a story for another time, though).

For those that think this might be them, we suggest reverse hypers. It’s the most well-tolerated back exercise (it rarely increases symptoms) and it’s incredibly effective at increasing strength. You don’t need a fancy reverse hyper machine to do it. Oftentimes, a box at the gym or a glute hamstring developer (GHD) with bands will do just fine.

Sciatic Nerve Flossing

Last, but not least, a stiff low back can come from tight nerves and not the low back itself. When this is the case, you can stretch (and strengthen – don’t forget that part!) the low back all you want to with little to no results. If that sounds like you, trying a nerve floss can be a game changer. There’s a million and one different nerve flosses out there, but this is our favorite when it comes to a stiff low back.

What Causes a Stiff Low Back

In going through some of the best exercises to target a stiff low back, we’ve already hit on the following reasons the low back can become stiff:

  • A lack of mobility within the low back
    • This comes from not moving all the parts of your back through their full range of motion
  • Stiff thoracolumbar junction
    • Rotation usually feels more stiff than bending forward when this is the case
  • Lack of strength in the back
    • Overused muscles reflexively tighten up to protect the back
  • Nerve tension
    • A tight nerve pulls on the back, causing feelings of stiffness

There’s also a few more reasons why the low back can become stiff. Here they are:

  • Lack of recovery
    • Tissues that have too much waste products don’t move as well. Waste products (whether it’s from an unhealthy diet, lack of sleep, or a heavy workout) cause muscles to stick together and not move fluidly.
  • Poor postures with movement
    • A great example of this is running. Those who get a stiff low back after running usually run with a pelvis that is tilted forward. The forward tilt shortens the muscles and decreases the spaces in joints of the low back. This leads to feelings of stiffness when you try to move out of that position.
  • Not moving frequently enough throughout the day
    • While this may seem incredibly obvious, we’d be remiss to not mention it. Just because you got a good 1-2 hour workout in the morning does not mean you can sit in a chair for 4-5 hours later on in the day and expect to not be stiff when you stand up. Our body craves movement and functions best when we move often.

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