Knees to Chest Exercise for Back Muscle Release

Develop Spinal Flexibility as You Relax Your Back

Woman does the double legged stretch.
Woman does the double legged stretch. bdibdus

The knees-to-chest is an easy, feel good back stretch that makes a good recuperation exercise after gardening, housework or even computer work.

How the Knees-to-Chest Exercise Helps Your Back

Doing the knees-to-chest exercise faithfully - ideally every day - may help increase your low-back range of motion. Increased low-back range of motion will likely benefit most people, including those with spinal arthritis and spinal stenosis.

Range of motion is the most important type of exercise for people with osteoarthritis in their spines, says Hagit Rajter, M.S.P.T., physical therapist, Joint Mobility Center, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York City. "This type of exercise helps make positive changes in the joint, along with increasing blood supply and assisting nutrients to flow into the area."

How to do the Knees-to-Chest Exercise

Start doing the knees-to-chest with one leg only. If you can do this without pain for several days in a row, it’s likely time to advance to lifting both legs, Rajter tells me. If you are at all unsure whether a double- (or single-) legged knees-to-chest stretch is safe, speak with your healthcare provider before trying the following:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. This is called the supine position.
  • Gently raise one bent knee up enough so you can grasp your lower leg with both hands. (Interlace your fingers just under the knee.) If you’re doing the two-legged version, bring one leg up and then the other. This is safer for vulnerable backs than bringing them both up at the same time. It takes a lot of abdominal strength to protect your back when you bring both legs up at once.) Also, if you are doing the two-legged version, interlace your fingers or clasp your wrists between the lower legs, just below the knees.
  • Gently pull your bent knee toward your trunk, using your hands.
  • Try to relax your legs, pelvis and low back as much as you can while you pull. This is not a contest - it is a chance to release unnecessary muscle tension that may be responsible for some or all of your back pain. Relaxing may allow more movement in the joints of your lower body.
  • Hold for a few seconds.
  • Return your leg to the floor.
  • Repeat on other side.
  • Do the exercise about 10 to 15 times, one or two times per day or as needed.

Use the "Chain Reaction" to Stretch Your Lower Back

To get good spinal flexion action, allow the natural chain reaction from thigh to hip to low back to occur. When you pull your thigh to your chest, it should pull the bottom of your pelvis up just a little. This, in turn, will likely give a little stretch to your low back. You need to relax your thigh and hip muscles as much as you can to achieve this effect. It’s as though the pelvis and low back go along for the ride when you pull your leg. You don’t need to force this; it occurs naturally because of the way the body is designed.

If you have trouble getting that lift in the lower pelvis, you might consider placing a small towel or folded blanket under your sacrum to get you started in the right direction.

Related:  All You Need to Know about Chiropractic Adjustments


Cotton, R. and Anderson, R. Clinical Exercise Specialist Manual: ACE's Source for Training Special Populations. American Council on Exercise. 1999. San Diego.

Telephone Interview. Rajter, Hagit, PT, MSPT, Schroth Scoliosis Therapist, Cert. McKenzie Therapist, Advanced Clinician Physical Therapist, Joint Mobility Center, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York City. September 2011.

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