6 Quick Stretches to Protect Your Back at Work

Are you spending most of your workday sitting down? Left unchecked, this positioning leads to muscular imbalances and skeletal malalignment, all of which can worsen back pain.

While seated, your hip flexors, hamstrings, and—if you're wearing high heels—calf muscles are all in a shortened position. As the years go by, this position will lead to a shortening of these soft tissues overall, which ultimately predispose you to developing pain and discomfort.

See Ergonomics of the Office and Workplace: An Overview

Wall Hamstring StretchHamstring stretches, like the wall hamstring stretch, are great for protecting your low back at work.
Wall Hamstring Stretch for Low Back Pain Relief Video

The discomfort could range from a simple ache to a problem that limits function and requires medical treatment and possibly even surgery.

Poor posture takes a toll on your back

Your posture while sitting for long periods could also have an impact. As people sit, they have a tendency to slump down in their chairs, allowing their shoulders to round forward and their neck to look relatively upward.

See How Poor Posture Causes Neck Pain

This posture has a significant impact over time, because whenever you look upward, you are decreasing the amount of space your nerves have to exit the spinal cord. If you are someone who already has a condition called stenosis (a narrowing of the joint space in which a spinal nerve travels through), this posture exaggerates the problem.

See Spinal Anatomy and its Effects on Types of Spinal Stenosis

Thankfully there are a few simple exercises to combat the imbalances commonly associated with too much sitting.

To avoid common problem muscular shortness and stiffness, don’t overdo it. People often stretch too aggressively. Make the stretch mild, or you’ll waste your time.

For maximum benefit, perform five to 10 of each of the following stretches, holding each stretch for 10 seconds. Don’t do the stretches more than twice a day.

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1. Stretch those tight hamstrings.

Having tight hamstrings—the large muscles in the back of your thighs—is a common result of too much sitting in the workplace. To stretch these muscles, lie down on the floor near a doorway, straightening the leg you will not be stretching through the doorway.

Next, place the leg you will stretch up along the doorframe, starting with the knee slightly bent. Straighten the knee completely, and depending on the level of stretch felt, either move closer or farther away. The closer you get to the wall, the more intense the stretch.

See Specific Hamstring Stretches for Back Pain Relief

2. Focus on the hip flexors.

A second important muscle group is the hip flexors, located in the front of the hip. Begin with one knee on the ground. I would suggest putting something soft, such as a pillow, under your knee to make it more comfortable.

The leg that is not being stretched will reach out in front, foot flat on the floor, with the hip and knee both bending approximately 90 degrees. Now, shift your weight forward allowing the leg that is behind to feel the stretch at the front of the hip.

Two tips. If you’re feeling the stretch more in the opposite hamstring, you probably need to extend your foot farther forward at the beginning of the stretch. Second, make sure you don’t arch your back in an effort to stretch the hip. Arching could lead to low-back irritation.

See Stretching for Back Pain Relief

3. Try a neck stretch.

To stretch your neck, tuck your chin down toward your throat, rotating the head toward each ear. Next, place your hand on the back of your head, providing a gentle downward force.

4. Sit up tall for the head tilt.

A second stretch for your neck is to sit up tall, then allow your head to tilt toward the right or left shoulder. Again, use your hand as added weight to assist in stretching. The stretch sensation should occur on the side opposite of the way you are tilting.

For example, a left-sided neck stretch should use a right-sided tilt, and vice versa. If you are feeling the stretch in the same side, discontinue the stretch. It could be a sign of something else going on.

See Neck Stretches

5. Stretch out those arms.

Quite a few people who work in an office suffer from wrist and elbow pain. An easy way to prevent this from developing is to avoid getting stiff in your wrist flexors or extensors.

  • A good stretch begins with extending one arm straight out in front of your body.
  • Make sure your elbow is straight and your palm is facing down. Bend the wrist so the fingers are pointing down.
  • With the opposite hand, reach out to the extended hand from below, and pull the extended hand toward you.

A stretch should be felt in the top of the forearm or back of the wrist.

6. Stretch palms to the ceiling.

The second wrist stretch would be once again straightening your elbow, but this time the palm faces up toward the ceiling. You will once again use the opposite hand to bend your wrist back so the fingers point down towards the floor once again. This stretch should be felt in the front of your forearm.

These 6 stretches are a simple way to help prevent pain associated with a typical sedentary work environment. If you already have pain, these exercises are not a substitute for a thorough medical evaluation to ensure no other maladies are present.

Learn more:

Back Strengthening Exercises

Sciatica Causes and Exercises

Michael Reid, PT, DPT
Post written by Michael Reid, PT, DPT