I was standing with my mum in the airport after returning from a family trip to Mexico. It had been a long haul. She was tired and complaining that her back hurt. Her body was draped over the luggage cart like she was protecting it from some sort of attack. I said, “mum, you should stretch out, that was a long flight.” She grumbled a little and after the third time I suggested stretching she pulled herself up off the cart and I directed her through these four essential stretches. She looked at me. “Like these are going to make a difference.” But, slowly I saw the tension drain from her shoulders and she was standing more upright then she had in the last half hour. We started to walk toward the exit and after about twenty steps she admitted “oh my gosh Heather, I feel way better” I knew she would. I am sure I have taught these four stretches close to 10,000 times. Every patient in my office receives this handout on one of their first few visits because these stretches are so “essential”.

So, who is supposed to do these stretches? EVERYONE. These stretches should be done at least once a day. If you exercise then you add an “essential stretch sandwich” around your workout. (Stretches = bread in this scenario.) If you sit for a living then you can set your computer alarm to once an hour. Knock out at least one or two of these during each break. You cannot do these too often!

So why do “The Essential Four Stretches” help low back pain? Picture a tug of war; your leg muscles, (quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals, and Hipflexors) are on one side, and the low back muscles (Multifide, Quadratus Lumborum and Errector Spinae) are on the other. If your leg muscles are tight, the low back muscles will also tighten to hold their end of the rope taught. If we stretch the leg muscles, the low back muscles can relax a little into the slack in the rope.

The VIDEO below will demonstrate all four stretches. I encourage you to read through the explanation and then watch the video. 

  • QUADRICAPES STRETCH: Standing tall, using a wall as support if needed, bend your left knee and grasp your left ankle with your hand. Pull your left ankle gently towards your buttock until you feel a stretch in the front of the left thigh. If you have knee issues or are extra tight, you can loop a dishtowel around the ankle and pull slowly. WATCH OUT!! Do not arch your back while doing this stretch; try to keep the pelvis tucked, (think tail between your legs) buttocks slightly engaged, and the bent knee close to the right knee.
  • HAMSTRING STRETCH: Standing tall, face a surface that is twelve inches off the ground give or take. Elevate the left leg so that your heel is resting on the elevated surface in front of you. Slowly bend forward at the hip until you feel a pull in the back of the upper leg. Watch Out!! Bend forward at the hip not the low back. Do not round the spine. Keep eyes and chest focused on the wall in front of you.
  • BUTT STRETCH: (Referring to gluts and hip rotators.) Sit in a chair or on a bench. I have even backed up against a tree for this on a hike as well! Raise the left leg and cross the left ankle over the right knee in the “figure four” position. Keeping your back straight, gently lean forward until you feel a pull in the back of the left hip and glut area. If you need more of a stretch you can gently press down on the bent knee. This stretch can also be done lying on your back. Use the same figure four position and then reach through and bring your non-bent leg toward your chest. This movement will nicely traction the bent knee resting on top of the straight leg. WATCH OUT!! Keep your chest up and lean your sternum toward the opposite wall. This will keep you from rounding your spine.
  • HIP FLEXOR STRETCH: Standing, get into a deep lunge position (left leg back). Keep your upper body upright. Do not lean forward or you will lose the stretch. Most people will feel a pull into the front of the left hip or hipflexor during this stretch but if you do not feel a pull in that area raise your left hand to the sky. Slowly “draw” a line across the sky with your left index finger as you lean over to the right side. If you just cannot feel a stretch here drop the left knee to the ground and push the hips a little further forward. WATCH OUT!! Do not lean forward and make sure to keep the knee over the ankle.

Note: Please perform all stretches on the right side as well (too obvious?)

HOLD STRETCHES: My rule of thumb is 30 seconds for a stretch but if it is feeling great, hold it longer. Less than thirty seconds the muscles really don’t get a chance to relax into the stretch and lengthen, and the ligaments don’t have time to send their positive neural feedback to the spine.

“The Essential Four Stretches” are ground level movements “every body” should be employed to perform every single day. So whether you sit at a desk or hit the gym daily or you just find yourself draped over a baggage cart, you should have these in your repertoire. In just four minutes, these stretches can provide flexibility, injury protection, and longevity!  

Here’s the VIDEO finally!!

Please share with me your favorite stretches in the comments section below.

FIRST STEPS: Try performing these stretches just one time a day for the next week. Note to see if you feel any different.

(FIRST STEPS is a new part of my mission for WELLFITandFED. Every blog post I will end with an  action item or challenge.)


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