How important are stretching exercises for back pain? To answer that question, let me ask you a few questions.

Do you ever feel stiff? Do you suffer from repetitive strains or sprains? Do your joints hurt during recreational or routine daily activities? Do you fatigue easily? Do you sometimes ache during resting activities?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be experiencing poor muscle flexibility. Muscle flexibility is the ability of our muscles to lengthen in response to the movement of a joint. For example, when you bend your elbow, the muscle on the backside of the upper arm (triceps muscle) lengthens while the muscle on the front side of the upper arm (biceps muscle) shortens. When you straighten your elbow the opposite occurs; the biceps lengthens and the triceps shortens.

In order to move, our bodies utilize the coordinated action of 430 muscles. Efficient use of these muscles requires the ability of the muscle to overcome resistance (strength), the ability of the muscle to sustain an activity (endurance), and the ability of the muscle to function across its normal length (flexibility).

When most people begin an exercise program, the emphasis is on strength and endurance training, while very little attention is paid to flexibility. However, studies have shown that exercise that addresses strength alone significantly reduces one’s mobility due to poor flexibility.

Reasons for tight muscles:

  • Heavy work or hard physical exercise
  • Poorly coordinated movement
  • Poor posture
  • Inactive lifestyle
  • Repetitive, small range of motion movements
  • Pain and injury

The body responds to poor flexibility by altered or limited mobility. This change in mobility results in unnecessary stress on the joints, poor circulation, and weakness in other muscle groups. Over time, these changes can lead to injury.

Symptoms Related To Poor Flexibility

Poor Flexibility In: Related Symptoms
Neck and Shoulder Head/neck pain
Arms and hands pain
Chest pain
Back pain
Rib Cage Arm pain
Chest pain
Low Back Back pain
Limited trunk mobility
Hip Joints Hip pain
Groin pain
Stomach pain
Back pain
Leg pain
Thighs, Calves, Feet Altered walking
Pelvic pain
Back pain
Neck pain

There are two basic types of muscle stretching:

  • Ballistic stretching
  • Slow, sustained stretching

Ballistic stretching involves rapid, active movement designed to increase mobility. For example, bending forward rapidly to touch your toes. The problem with this type of stretching is that it provokes a protective reflex in the muscle that causes the muscle to shorten rather than lengthen. Because of the uncontrolled and sometimes violent movement to overcome this reflex shortening, injury can result.

For this reason, ballistic stretching is not recommended.

Slow, sustained stretching involves the low intensity, long duration lengthening of muscle. Low intensity implies lengthening to the point of tension, while long duration implies holding the stretch for 30 seconds to a minute or more. This type of stretching has been shown in repeated clinical studies to be superior to ballistic stretching in both effectiveness and safety. For this reason, our recommendation of the type of stretching to be used by our clients is slow, sustained stretching.

When and how often one stretches are two very important considerations in the overall effectiveness of any flexibility program. Although it is important to stretch prior to activity, it is even more important to stretch after activity. After activity, the muscles are warm and shortened and respond quite well to stretching exercises.

Because many of our clients have relatively inactive lifestyles, we recommend stretching every day during the first three months of the program. At the very least, you will be stretching before and after each of the cardiovascular exercise sessions.

In summary, the benefits of muscle stretching include:

  • Prevents and relieves soreness from exercise, muscle and tendon injury and cramps, painful menstrual cycles, and stress.
  • Lessens the risk, intensity, and duration of injuries to muscles, tendons, and joints.
  • Improves the strength of muscle and tendon.
  • Improved range of motion of joints by allowing muscles to function across their normal length

What’s been your experience with stretching exercises for back pain? Share your thoughts below and we’ll give you a few of our best back stretches.

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