Knees to Chest Stretch for Low Back Muscles

Develop Joint Range of Motion and Spinal Flexibility

Woman does the double legged knees to chest stretch.
Woman does the double legged knees to chest stretch. bdibdus

If you ever feel like you somehow miss the mark when you attempt a low back stretch — even though you know those muscles are very tight and you make every effort to release them — you are not alone. For many of us, stretching hip, neck, calf and other muscles is a pretty straightforward deal. But the back muscles? Not so much. These can get so tight that they become hard to reach.

Finding the sweet spot for stretchiness in low back muscles can be difficult if you don't choose the right exercise for the job.

 You may do a sustained toe touch in hopes of improving back flexibility. And yes, you're rounding your back, which technically speaking puts those muscles on a stretch, but the movement of toe touching primarily happens at the hip joints. The back rounding tends to be an offshoot of that, and it is not particularly safe, either.

That's where the knees-to-chest stretch comes in. Not only does it feel great in most instances, but it's a wonderful way to restore flexibility in your low back muscles following an afternoon of gardening or housework or after a day at the computer.

But the knees-to-chest stretch is good for more than low back muscle release.

As a range of motion exercise, in other words, a movement that increases your joint flexibility, the knees-to-chest stretch may help reduce stiffness associated with spinal arthritis and/or spinal stenosis.

In fact, range of motion is the most important type of exercise for people who have osteoarthritis in their spines, says Hagit Rajter, physical therapist at the Joint Mobility Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

"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

For your safety, start doing the knees-to-chest stretch with one leg only. If, after a few days, you're performing it without pain, it’s likely time to advance to lifting both legs, Rajter tells me.

By the way, if you are unsure whether a double or single legged knees-to-chest stretch is safe given your particular back condition, 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. Because taking both up at the same time takes a lot of abdominal strength, starting with one and then quickly following with the other is likely safer, especially for vulnerable backs.
  • As with the single legged version, if you are taking both up at the same time, interlace your fingers or clasp your wrists between the lower legs, just below the knees.
  • Gently pull your bent knee or knees toward your trunk, using your hands.
  • While you're pulling, try to relax your legs, pelvis and low back as much as you can. The knees-to-chest better reaches low back muscles when used passively.
  • Hold for a few seconds.
  • Return your leg to the floor.
  • Repeat on other side.
  • Do the stretch about 10 to 15 times, one or two times per day or as needed.

    A Chain Reaction Stretch

    As mentioned above, knees-to-chest works best as a passive stretch, which means keeping the legs and hips as relaxed as possible. Doing so may help you get good spinal flexion because it allows the natural chain reaction from thigh to hip to low back to occur. In other words, when you pull your thigh to your chest, it should pull the bottom of your pelvis up just a little. This pulling will likely translate higher up until it reaches your lumbar spine area.

    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.

    According to a 2017 study published in Spine journal, science has yet to correlate tight or otherwise changed lumbar muscles with low back pain. Just the same, many people find that a good release is the best medicine when the trouble sets in.

    Sources:

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

    Ranger, T., et. al. Is the size and composition of the paraspinal muscles associated with low back pain/ A systematic review. Spine J. July 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28756299

    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.

    Continue Reading