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Why Stretching Your Back after a Workout is Critical

stretch after workoutA few days ago, I asked readers on my Facebook page to fill in a simple blank for me.

I feel like I’ve had a good workout session when ________.

Some good answers came in…

“I drip sweat on the floor.”

“[I] have to lay on the floor to catch my breath.”

“I get the wobbles in my legs and my shirt is drenched.”

“When my quads are screaming “please stop!””

You can picture it yourself, can’t you?

You just had an intense workout. Maybe you did some HIIT. Some kettlebell tabata training. Some intense jump rope work. Perhaps a sprint session.

And you did what feels natural. What you see every athlete do on the big screen. What every man or woman does after an intense bout of activity…

You bent over to rest with your hands on your knees.

Here’s why that instinctive, knee-jerk movement can destroy your back…

A little while ago I was reading one of my favourite books – Pavel’s Enter the Kettlebell! – to refresh my memory on some of the awesome content presented in there.

One particular thing mentioned in the book caught my attention:

Renowned physical therapist Robin McKenzie explains that most back pain is triggered by over-stretching of the ligaments and the surrounding tissues. Which is in turn often caused by bad posture, especially the loss of the arch in the lower back. “After activity, the joints of the spine undergo a loosening process. If, after exercise, we place the back in an unsupported position for long periods, distortion with the joint readily occurs. This is true whether we sit in a slouched position or whether we stand, bending forward with out hands on our knees.” [source]

This is vital information (especially for guys like myself who have had spinal disc issues in the past).

The act of slouching or bending over forward to rest after an intense (or not) session of exercise, we put our back – and particularly our intervertebral discs – in a vulnerable position.

“During vigorous exercise the joints of the spine are moved rapidly in many directions. This process causes a thorough stretching in all directions of the soft tissues surrounding the joints. In addition, the fluid gel contained in the spinal discs is loosened, and it seems that distortion or displacement can occur if, after exercise, an exercised joint is placed in an extreme posture.” [source]

Extreme posture in this case is a flexed position.

The one with your hands on your knees. The one where you slump onto a couch or a chair after a workout.

So what’s the alternative?

Instead of slouching over in-between sets or after a workout, there are certain back-extending and stretching exercises that can help stretch the loosened muscle tissue in your back and, in my opinion, are crucial for keeping your back healthy.

Here are three back stretching exercises you can use after a workout:

1 – Cobra Stretch

The cobra stretch is excellent for extending the lower back. I like to use this exercise before, during, and after my workout as it keeps the tissues in my back loose and lengthened.

cobra stretch

This is also one of the important exercises that make up my after-workout stretching routine that I use to counter the effects of prolonged sitting.

Focus on keeping your hips glued to the ground and use your hands to bring your chest up.

Try to go a little bit higher each succession.

2 – Hanging Spinal Decompression

This is one of my favourite back stretching exercises.

Throughout the day, your back is constantly under compressive stresses – walking, training, sitting – and these compressive stresses cause strain on your discs.

This exercise is incredible for decompressing the back and alleviating all of the stress that builds up in the spine.

spinal decompression exercise

I like to use this exercise before and after my workouts. Whenever I have a chance to ‘hang somewhere’, I do it.

Another thing I’ve found effective is squeezing the handles really tight and rotating my body slowly as far to each side as I can.

Read more about how to decompress your back.

3 – Back Extensions

This particular exercise is great for extending the back in-between sets and is excellent for lengthening the tissues in your back.

back extension exercise

Place both hands on your lower back, fingers pointing down, and your legs straight. Now start bending back slowly by pressing your hands against your back and pushing. Once you reach the point where you can’t bend anymore, hold it there for a few seconds, then return to the start. Repeat this back extension exercise a few times, each time trying to bend a little further.

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The moral of this post is simple:

Don’t put your back in a vulnerable, flexed state  during or immediately after a workout.

Instead, use this time when your back is loose and pliable to improve its flexibility.

Incorporate some back stretching exercises into your workout and post-workout stretching routine.

Bonus Tip:

Another thing I like to do from time to time after a workout is lay down on the ground (on my stomach) with my elbows on the floor (which places my lower back into slight extension) and I either read or work on the computer. Doing this for 10-15 minutes after a workout helps lengthen my spine as it cools down.

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Are you the type to fall into the flexion trap? Do you collapse after a workout, grab for your knees, or slouch heavily? Are there any exercises or stretches you use to alleviate this? Feel free to share your comments below.

And if you enjoyed the post, please share it!

Paul Smith - November 21, 2012

great advice, im gonna try that hanging stretch!

I stretch (at least once) every day normally before and after exercise. If I don’t I get a tight pain in my lower back and down my right leg (the sciatic nerve I think). My routine is to reach up high on tip toes, then arch backwards, then slowly drop forwards to touch my toes, then I follow this with a downward facing dog and finish with the cobra.

A nice fluid movement, that doesn’t take long and releases the tension in my lower back 🙂

    Test - November 22, 2012

    Hey Paul, thanks for sharing your routine. That seems like a very solid, yoga-based stretching pattern that I’ll definitely try. How long do you perform the stretch for?

    I think stretching is very underrated and underutilized. We need to be constantly stretching our tissues if building a better body is a priority. Keep it up!

      Paul Smith - November 22, 2012

      yeah they are yoga-based, i just hold each one for 3-4 seconds, oh and forgot – i finish in child-position after cobra, just to balance it out 😉

      The guys in the gym like to tease me for my stretches and planks, sayin I’m doing pilates! But then i have abs, and they don’t 😛

      Backs are sooo important, most gym users just want to pump up their bi’s and chest, but as we all know – thats not true strength 😉

        Test - November 22, 2012

        Paul, you should check out a book called Foundation Training (comes with some videos too). It’s a very unique method of back strengthening that is taught down in California somewhere. A lot of their movements are yoga-based, but I’ve found them to be very useful (maybe a future post idea?).

        I think we live in such a forward-facing world that we very often forget (or neglect) what’s behind us, including our posterior chain. We push, but rarely pull. This leads to many imbalances and biomechanical inefficiencies which can result in all sorts of problems. Keep strengthening that back and working on your posterior chain and you’ll outperform any guy with big biceps.

Derek - November 21, 2012

First let me say that I found this site last week and its awesome. Keep up the good work Srdjan.

I’m a big fan Jeff Cavaliere and his Athlean-X program and he suggests doing static stretching before you go to bed and active stretching before you workout.I always get a little confused about stretching because there are so many theories out there about the right way to do it. Any tips or advice you could pass along?

    Test - November 22, 2012

    Hey Derek, thanks for your comment and I’m happy you’re enjoying the site!

    I enjoy some of Jeff’s stuff because he focuses a lot on functionality, something that I think is a very important part of any training program.

    When it comes to stretching, there are definitely many philosophies and they’re often contradicting each other (nothing new in the fitness world, right?). Here’s where I stand: I think active – or dynamic – stretching is a MUST before any activity that engages multiple muscle groups (in unison) in an explosive, high intensity manner. So, for example, I always do a short, full-body dynamic/active stretching routine before sprinting, HIIT, or kettlebell training. I also use simple active stretching movements to prepare for any form of resistance training, placing specific joints through their full range of motion before I load them.

    I think static stretching is a MUST after exercise (when they are loose and pliable) to lengthen tissues and improve their flexibility.

    I also think a daily SMR – self-myofascial release – routine is of vital importance to keep tissues healthy.

    One philosophy I’m looking more into is that of corrective stretches (which I learned from Elliot Hulse). This is the idea of statically stretching a muscle before a workout – obviously very different from my own philosophies. But I like to broaden my horizons and see what else is possible, so I’ll keep you posted on my conclusions with corrective stretching.

    Hope that helps a bit.

      Derek - November 22, 2012

      Ok cool I already follow the active before I’ll start doing the static aftervand see what happens.

      Thanks!

Austin - November 21, 2012

I was familiar with the other stretches but not the Hanging Spinal Decompression. Thanks for the share

J P - November 21, 2012

Thanks for the informative post. I’ve had back issues from time to time, but these stretches can be really useful after my workouts.

    Test - November 22, 2012

    Absolutely JP. I try to do them as often as I can, not just after my workout.

Mitch - Home Fitness Manual - November 21, 2012

Srdjan, great advice on helping to fix the strain and stress that gets put on the posterior chain…a lot of issues can arise simply because of sitting at a desk (or laptop) for long periods of time. I’ve been using the hanging spine decompression method when you first wrote about back in February. It’s been a great help.

Mitch

    Test - November 22, 2012

    Thanks Mitch. The spine decompression exercises is awesome. I’ve started adding more rotations while hanging to increase the intensity of the stretch.

Kun - November 22, 2012

Great advice!

After I play badminton, I bend forward to touch my toes, is this wrong?

If you do not have access to bars, what replaces the hanging exercise?

    Test - November 23, 2012

    Hey Kun, I would refrain from bending over to touch your toes, especially after exercise. This places a lot of stress on the lower back as it is in a flexed state. The idea of whether touching your toes is good for your back or not is a controversial topic, but I figure it makes sense to err on the side of safety and avoid the stretch.

    If you don’t have access to bars, try using a towel. Loop it over something sturdy and hang off of it in a similar fashion.

Alina - November 23, 2012

Great article once again Srdjan.
Is this http://tinyurl.com/cr62fr4 the “Foundation training” book that you have recommended?

Should you do something (cool down?) between the workout and the static stretching or it is not necessary? If you do recommend cool down then how should it look like? Maybe something similar to what you do before workout? How long should it be?
Thank you.

    Test - November 23, 2012

    Hey Alina, that’s the one. I’d recommend getting the iTunes version as it has videos incorporated in it too. And I know you know how much better videos are 🙂

    And I think the importance of the cool-down is correlated to the intensity of your workout. If you just finished an intense workout – sprinting, kettlebell work, etc. -, something that elevated your heart rate to the 80-90%+ range, it wouldn’t be wise to simply stop moving. This places a lot of stress on the heart. Instead, you need to gradually decrease your heart rate by performing a short cool-down session at a much lower intensity. This can be anything from a really light skip, shadow boxing, simple mobility movements, etc. And it doesn’t have to be long. 5-10 minutes should suffice.

    Hope that helps!

Beth Lockhart - November 23, 2012

Hi Srdjan!
I’ve been changing my workout every 6-8 weeks, adding and subtracting and playing and working. When I began going to the gym in March, I went to a lot of classes and the one that gave me the most trouble had a lot of yoga based exercise. I knew that at some point that I would have to address my lack of flexibility, so when I finally took some time away from work, I started Bikram Hot Yoga on a daily basis. A lot of us are overcoming injury, various surgeries, medication side effects, stress, age….you name it. It has been great and I plan to keep going in addition to going to the gym since I can feel improvement almost day to day. I used to do my stretching in the sauna….this is even better.

Thanks for all that you do!!!!
Beth
(Mastectomy Girl)

    Test - November 23, 2012

    Hey Beth, I think Yoga is amazing for improving flexibility and addressing all sorts of environment-related issues and I’m happy that you got to witness that for yourself. The exercises I present here barely scratch the surface of what Yoga offers, so the chance presents itself to take one of these classes, I highly recommend it!

    Keep up the great work Beth 🙂

David Cano Riesgo - November 23, 2012

Nice! I usually do Hanging and Cobra after workouts, but I am thinking that the back extension is cool as might be executed anywhere, what would my colleagues at work think if I do that in the middle of the office? lol.

Thanks for the post!

David

    Test - November 23, 2012

    Haha, David I’ve started doing full-out stretching routines in the bathroom at my workplace so I’ve gotten used to the funny looks (at times). As for doing it in the middle of the office, that’s next level stuff 🙂

Troy Adashun - November 25, 2012

From my experience slow and concentrated foam rolling is the best way to work out those post workout back kinks. It is amazing at preventing muscle soreness from heavy back lifting.

    Test - November 30, 2012

    I absolutely agree.

    Do you use any other tools for soft tissue work? Lacrosse balls? Tiger tails?

Vivek - November 26, 2012

Have you tried “Surya Namaskar”? I do this after every workout. Helps me stretch almost everything.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQn-QHLqNvI
Skip to 0:30 if you want to skip the spiritual mumbo-jumbo
You can search for more videos for people who look better doing the same routine

Also popular here in India is the “half” surya namaskar which is basically Indian style push-ups 🙂

    Test - November 30, 2012

    Thanks for sharing Vivek! That looks like a great post-workout stretching routine.

    I’ll have to outline a few of these stretches and perhaps incorporate them into my own routine.

    PS – what’s wrong with the spiritual mumbo-jumbo stuff?? 🙂

Alykhan - Fitness Breakout - November 26, 2012

Srdjan,

I usually do cobra stretches after hanging leg raises, but I will start incorporating these stretches after all of my workouts, perhaps even daily. I know several people with back problems and I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid them so far. I’d like to keep it that way and these exercises seem like an easy form of prevention.

Alykhan

    Test - November 30, 2012

    Hey Alykhan, it’s no surprise you know several people with back problems – it’s the number one reason people go to see the doctor these days. You’re fortunate (and smart) to have avoided them and I’m sure these exercises will help you keep it that way!

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