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How to Stretch Your Back with this Spinal Decompression Exercise

I feel bad for the spine.

I really do.

It’s constantly being loaded with forces from all different angles and directions.

Especially compressive forces.

Thanks to gravity, your spine is constantly under compression.

Whether you are standing, running, squatting, deadlifting, pressing or even if you have your ass planted in a chair 40 to 60 hours a week, your spine is being compressed.

Heavily.

The spinal compression itself doesn’t create problems. Our bodies have learned to adapt to the forces of gravity. We’ve been on this planet long enough.

But our bodies were not designed to function in our current sedentary environments. Our bodies were designed to move, not stay glued to a chair. They were designed to be challenged with periods of intense activity, not left unmoved.

Over the years, we’ve created what my friend Elliot Hulse likes to call muscle viruses – or muscular imbalances that wreak havoc on our bodies.

When these muscle viruses are coupled with compressive stresses on the spine…

That’s when problems arise.

I’ve learned this first hand.

Some time ago, my body was overwhelmed with muscle viruses and I was constantly loading my (lumbar) spine with compressive forces from intense training and excessive sitting (mostly as a result of living in the library during my last years of University). It only made sense that a disc herniation was to follow.

But what can you do. You live and you learn.

What I want to teach you today is how to stretch your back effectively. I want to show you how to decompress the spine with an amazing exercise that I only wish I had known about back in those days.

This is an exercise that I discovered as I was flipping through the Strength Training Anatomy book. [Note: this is an excellent reference for understanding which muscle groups are affected by different exercises]

You see, what happens when you load your spine with highly-compressive exercises like a squat or a deadlift (or even when you sit or stand for prolonged periods), the interverbral discs (jelly like cushions between your vertebrea) get squished.

Depending on the position of your spine (i.e. flexed or compressed), the nucleus inside the disc can move around and if you have the wrong combination of spinal flexion with high compressive loads, you can cause some serious damage.

The following exercise is designed to stretch the back and decompress your spine. It causes the small intervertebral ligaments and muscles to stretch, thus reducing the compression on the discs.

Here’s a picture showing how to stretch your back with this spine decompressing exercise:

Find a chin-up bar and hang from it with a wide overhand grip. Your thumbs should be pointing at each other. As you hang, do the following:

  • Inhale and exhale slowly. Concentrate on fully relaxing your body. This will allow the muscles in the back to relax and lengthen, allowing the pressure inside the discs to equilibrate.
  • When you are completely relaxed, lean your head forward, trying to touch your chin to your sternum. This helps stretch the upper and middle back.

To make this stretch even more effective, swing gently back and forth. Even better, get a partner to grab your hips and slowly pull your down.

Note: The stronger you grasp the bar as you hang, the more intense the stretch for your lats and teres major will be.

Try to hang there for 30 to 60 seconds or for as long as you can.

This is a fundamental stretching exercise for the back that I recommend you do at the end of every workout. If you have a pullup bar at home, then I would recommend doing it every day.

It’s important to take a little bit of time to learn how to stretch your back with this incredible spine-decompressing exercise. It’s a great way to take some pressure off your intervertebral discs.

I hope this spine decompressing guide has shown you how to stretch your back effectively. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Benjamin - February 2, 2012

Thanks man, this is interesting and useful material. Just a question:
“The stronger you grasp the bar as you hang, the more intense the stretch for your lats and teres major will be.”
What exactly does that mean? Are you saying the tighter your grip, the more intense the stretch?

    Srdjan Popovic - February 2, 2012

    That’s exactly right, Ben. The tighter your grasp the bar, the more intense the stretch. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean.

David - The Natural Health Service - February 3, 2012

I’ve been hanging from the chin up bar for the last 2 or 3 years, but like you I wish I had known about it much sooner.

I haven’t been doing the stretching forward thing though, so I’ll add that to it. Thanks.

    Srdjan Popovic - February 3, 2012

    Give it a try David and let me know how it feels.

    Just one question. Have there been periods where you stopped doing this exercise regularly? And, if so, did you feel a difference in the way your back feels? Just curious..

      David - The Natural Health Service - February 4, 2012

      I tried it at the gym today. You can feel the stretch in the upper back, and I was surprised how little a range of movement there was.

      Yes, there have been periods when I got out of the habit of doing it. But I usually do other forms of stretching too, and didn’t really keep records of how various stretching made my back feel. But on balance I would have to say I think I have less back problems when I do this. So yes, I’m sure it is beneficial.

      What do you think about holding a dumbbell between your legs when doing it, rather than having someone pull on your hips, as I don’t have a training partner?

        Srdjan Popovic - February 5, 2012

        I found that swinging gently is very effective if you don’t have a workout partner. I haven’t tried using dumbbells but I’m sure it could work. I’ll give it a shot and let you know what I think.

Kevin - February 9, 2012

Nice post … I’ve been doing these for this last week and my back is feeling much better. I sit all day and then go to the gym and lift heavy weights … NOT good on the back!

I’ve found that if I (very carefully) rock from side to side I get a nice stretch that way as well.

    Srdjan Popovic - February 12, 2012

    It’s an excellent exercise to counteract the effects of sitting I find. I try to do it as often as I can (even on off days). Rocking does help for sure!

Jordan Figueiredo - February 11, 2012

I’ve been doing some serious deadlifts lately. This will come in handy as my back has been a bit tight!

Cheers,
Jordan

Robert - February 13, 2012

Stretching can often be overlooked or only reserved for pre and post cardio sessions. Getting a good back stretch in like this every day will help in so many different situations. For example, people who have to sit in front of their computer all day at the office, this can help with some of the back pain that results.

P.S. Are those Five Fingers in the picture?

    Srdjan Popovic - February 16, 2012

    Thanks for the comment Robert. Most of us spend a good chunk of the week with our ass planted in a chair, usually with poor posture. The compressive forces put a lot of pressure on the discs so it’s important to take that pressure off and lengthen the spine. This is one of my favorite exercises for doing that.

    And yea those are my favorite shoes in the world – Vibrams baby 🙂

      Robert - February 16, 2012

      I got a pair of VFF last summer, and it’s just about all I wear now. When the weather is a bit chillier outside I put on a pair of Tom’s instead, but for nicer weather, VFF are the only way to go!

Ryan - February 13, 2012

Srdjan:

Nice post and much needed. I have lower back issues from time to time and I can say that you are spot on with the info in your post.

P.S. I like the Vibrams, I have a pair myself and they are the only shoe I workout in

Ryan

    Srdjan Popovic - February 16, 2012

    Thanks for stopping by Ryan. It’s definitely a powerful exercises for minimizing/eliminating back pain. And yea everyone seems to love the Vibrams these days!

Gem - August 21, 2012

Hey,i have to say first of all that i really admire all the work and effort you have put in this blog,with all the useful info,videos and stuff.
I’m a professional dancer ,my age is 25 and i have been involved in different types of working out and dance styles for the past 10 years.
In the age of 22 i had a serious injury in my lower back and since then i have become obsessed with taking care of my body ,doing proper warm up and cool down after every intense physical training,stretching ,nutrition and i have read a lot about body mechanics and anatomy.
Because of the nature of my injury,inflamated lumbar discs and hypermobility of the lumbar area i have been trying all sorts of decompresion technics.
The one you describe is really useful and pain aliviating.
I just want to say that after hanging for 30-60 seconds it is REALLY important (for me at least ) to touch the ground SLOWLY with the tip of your shoes and SLOWLY land and distribute again all the weight to the legs.This is because ,when we relaxe and stretch the spinal cord ,a quick landing can cause an injury and for sure it reverses all the therapautic effect of stretching.
Also another good way to stretch the whole spinal cord,used a lot by dancers and also i saw an exercise like that in a hatha yoga class that i took some time ago,is the following.
Just lay flat on your back bend your legs,each one next to the other so that the knees look at the ceiling.Place your hands above the hip joint ,right there where your pelvis meet the hip socket.Inhale and while exhaling push slowly the pelvis downwards while in the same time you are prolonging your spine to the opossite direction.It is probable that you will hear many “cracks” in the vertebrea and is a very nice way to decompress the spine.
I can relate a lot to your goal through this blog.I’ve already subscribed and i’m gonna be checking often.
All the best man !
Best wishes from Athens ,Greece

    Srdjan Popovic - August 25, 2012

    Thanks for your kind words Gem and thanks for that added tip for the decompression exercise I described. I’ll pay more attention to how I land after I finish. Do you by chance know what the name of the exercise you described is? I’m curious to see some pictures. Thanks!

Willy - January 4, 2014

Will this work if the height of the chin up bar does not allow my legs to hang straight above ground? Should I adopt any modification to the move? Thanks.

    Srdjan Popovic - January 5, 2014

    Willy, I have the same issue sometimes. If you don’t have enough space available, bending your knees will work just not as well as letting your entire body hang.

Rob - May 27, 2016

Cool.

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