Your lower back, or lumbar spine, is made up from five lumbar vertebrae and several major muscles. The main muscles of the lower back are the erector spinae which is the collective term for the group of muscles that control many of the movements of your lower back. Other muscles of note include quadratus lumborum which is located between your lower ribs and the top of your hips, your obliques, or waist muscles, rectus abdominus, abs for short; and illiopsoas, or hip flexors. These muscles can all contribute to lower-back tension and stiffness.
Lower-Back Flexion Stretches
Flexion involves leaning forward and rounding your lower back. This type of movement specifically targets the erector spinae and can be performed several ways, including the cat stretch and the lying lower back stretch. To perform the cat stretch, kneel on all fours and lift the middle of your back up toward the ceiling to form an arch. The cat stretch can also be performed in the standing position -- just lean forward and place your hands on your thighs instead of kneeling on the floor. For the lying-lower back stretch, lie on your back, bend your legs and pull your knees in toward your chest. Raise your head to add an upper-back stretch to this exercise..
Lower-Back Extension Stretches
Leaning backwards and arching your lower back is called extension. Extension can help mobilize your lower back by stretching the muscles on the front of your hips and abdomen, specifically your hip flexors and rectus abdominus muscles. One way to extend your spine is the sphinx stretch. To start, lie on your front and rest on your elbows as though you are reading a book while lying on the beach. Extend your arms and raise your upper body to increase the range of movement of this stretch. Place your hands on your hips and lean backward to perform this movement while standing. You can also extend your spine by carefully lying on your back across a stability ball.
Lower-Back Rotation Stretches
Spinal rotation, or twisting, will stretch your lower-back muscles, mobilize your spine and also stretch your oblique muscles. You can perform rotation stretches by turning your shoulders or your hips. To perform the lying bent-leg oblique stretch, lie on your back and bend your legs. Keeping your shoulders flat on the floor, roll your knees to the side. Extend your arms out to your sides to help hold your shoulders in position. You can also stretch your obliques and lower back while seated. Place your feet flat on the floor and sit up straight. Keep your hips stationary, turn your upper body and look behind you. Hold the the arms or back of the chair if you want a deeper stretch.
Lower-Back Lateral-Flexion Stretches
Bending sideways is properly called lateral flexion, and in addition to stretching your erector spine, bending to the side also stretches your quadratus lumborum which is a deep lower-back muscle. Standing side bends using a chair provide an safe, supported way to laterally flex your lower back. Stand next to a chair with one hand resting on the chair back for support. Raise your opposite arm above your head. Lean sideways toward the chair but not allow your hips or shoulders to twist. You can also perform side bends without the chair by simply leaning sideways and sliding your hand down the side of your leg.
Perform some light cardio to warm up prior to stretching. This will ensure your muscles are ready to be stretched. Ease into each stretch gently and do not bounce as doing so can lead to injury. Hold your chosen stretch for 10 to 60 seconds -- short stretches maintain your current level of flexibility, while longer stretches improve it. Ease off or stop stretching altogether if you feel any pain.