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7 effective physical therapy exercises to relieve lower back pain in your home

7 effective physical therapy exercises to relieve lower back pain in your home

Dr. Michael Derry, DPT, PT, OCS Jacksonville, Florida
Table of Contents

Physical therapy exercises are very effective for relieving lower back pain. Learn how to do them and what they should feel like so you can improve your lower back pain over time.

Physical therapy exercises are an effective treatment of lower back pain. Not only is it supported by the highest levels of evidence but it is safe. Now there are some that have claimed that physical therapy made them worse but I would argue that we need to consider other aspects such as the therapist they worked with and the amount of work they put into bettering themselves. This approach to treating lower back pain is effective but it does take work. Learning muscle soreness vs. pain is easy for some but a hallmark of learning to exercise while you have discomfort.

With that said, I treat lower back pain everyday and have seen 1000’s of people improve. Lower back pain is very common. 90% of every human on this earth will have back pain in their life. While most get better on their own over time, some have pain longer than 3 months.

If you are feeling stiff in the morning, it's worth learning what you are feeling and why! 

As a physical therapist I have had the pleasure of treating many types of lower back pain including nerve pain, joint pain, and muscle spasms. Some lower back pain can even be from organs such as kidney stones! Over the past 8 years or so of treating lower back pain I have learned many physical therapy exercises that have relieved lower back pain over time. With lower back pain treatment there is no one size fits all but I have seen this similar set of physical therapy exercises help those with mild day to day lower back pain.

The physical therapy exercises below focus on mobility and strength so if you are looking for some stretches try these! They can be done anywhere and are in standing.

It is important to keep in mind that it is not what you do it's how you do it that matters. It may take some time to learn these and how to do them properly so don't give up! I am a firm believer that you can achieve lower back pain relief at home but it does take work.

It is not what you do it's how you do it!

Below are 7 effective physical therapy exercises to relieve lower back pain in your home.


1. Lumbar rotation

Lumbar spine rotation physical therapy exercise
Lumbar rotation exercise for lower back stiffness

Front view of lumbar rotation physical therapy exercise
Front view of lumbar rotation exercise

Classic physical therapy exercise to improve lower back stiffness. Start laying on your back and you can be on the floor or in your bed. Make sure your head is supported as well. Bend your knees and lay your feet flat. Then, let your knees dip towards the ground on one side. As you do this, you should feel a stretch on the other side of your lower back. This is a great way to loosen up a stiff lower back

2. Windmills

Windmill physical therapy exercise for back pain
Windmill exercise for upper and lower back stiffness
Windmill exercise end position
Windmill exercise end position for back stiffness

Windmills are an effective physiotherapy exercise to improve lower back and upper back stiffness. This can be done in bed or on teh floor. You will start by laying on your side. It is important to have your head supported so make sure you use a pillow underneath your neck. Once you are on your side bend your knees up towards your chest, probably about half way. Then rotate your hand and body to the other side. For example, if you are laying on your left side then you will reach with your right hand towards the right side. You want to follow your hand with your head so you will rotate your neck as you rotate your hand. This exercise will improve upper back and lower back mobility.

3. Thread the needle

Physical therapy exercise thread the needle
Thread the needle starting position
Thread the needle physical therapy exercise lower back pain
Thread the needle end position

Start on your hands and knees with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees under your hips. You should be comfortable in this position.. With a relaxed spine try to reach underneath your body with one hand reaching as far as you can to the opposite side. This does require a strong stabilization arm and it will bend a little as you reach. You will feel your upper back loosened up as you continue to rotate.

4. Transverse activation

The transverse abdominis contraction is a fundamental physical therapy exercise for lower back pain. It will help you learn how to contract and strengthen your core. You will actually feel the muscle contract. I have found this to be a great way to learn what abdominal activation is other than a standard crunch.

transverse abdominis physical therapy exercise
Transverse abdominis activiation

Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. The take one hand and place two fingers on the side of your hips towards the front. Then make our way towards your belly button with your fingers. As soon as you feel your hands dip into the soft spot of your stomach stay there. Your transverse abdominus lives deep in your trunk. Then you want to take a deep breath in and then breath all of your air out very slowly while trying to pull your belly button down towards your spine. You will eventually feel your abs contract, trust me. You won’t always need to time this with your breath but it is easier to learn that way at first.

5. Transverse with bridge

transverse activation with bridge physical therapy exercise
Transverse activation with bridge

Complete the steps above related to the transverse activation first. Once you have the activation, hold it as you lift your hips off the ground. Don’t worry about how high you lift your hips, just attempt to hold the transverse contraction and feel your glutes work as you lift.

6. Bridge with leg lift

Bridge with leg lift physical therapy exercise
Bridge with leg lift

The bridge with leg lift is a great physiotherapy exercise to strengthen your lower back. It's not easy but it is effective! Start by laying on your back with our feet flat. Then lift your hips off the ground as high as you feel comfortable. Once your hips are lifted, stay in the air and then lift one foot 1 inch off the ground. When you lift one side you will feel the other side really fire. This is normal. Try not to let your body rock to the side when you lift your foot. Once in the air, only hold for 2 seconds then lower your foot. Keep your hips in the air and repeat on the other side.

7. Bird dog with crunch

Physical therapy exercise bird dog
Bird dog with crunch starting position
Physical Therapy Exercise bird dog with crunch
Bird dog with crunch end position

My go to, physical therapy exercise for lower back weakness. Start on your hands and knees with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. From here slowly lift your leg and straighten your knee to point your toes to the wall behind you. After your leg is in the air then lift the opposite arm towards the wall in front of your. Think about reaching your arm and leg instead of lifting. That will help with your form. Let’s say your left leg is up with your right arm. From here, bring your right elbow toward your left knee and they will touch underneath you. Try to stay up as you repeat this.

The key is to go slow and controlled. Take breaks as needed!

Physical therapy or physiotherapy exercises for lower back pain require you to take your time. Really focus on engaging what you are supposed to engage. This allows your body to get the most out of the exercises. You can tell from the physical therapy exercises above they vary in intensity and difficulty. You may be good at some and worse at others.

3 unique features of physical therapy exercises for lower back pain

1. Quality over quantity

You want to go slow and controlled at first. I know that's not how we live our lives but it is how we learn our body and what exercises do well for us. When you are recovering it is worth thinking about intent. What is the intent of the exercise? If the exercise is focused at improving core strength then you want make sure you feel it in your core.

2. Slow and controlled movement

Slowing things down can really help dial in your physical therapy exercises directed at your lower back. Many times we get into trouble when we do too much, too quick. I really don't hear of people getting hurt while going slow. With that said, I often have my clients start slow and controlled but end of moving very quick because that's lie! We need to prepare your body for whatever is ahead! 

3. Flirt with pain, never go past it

This is key! Lower back pain can be very uncomfortable and when you add exercise it can be scary. No pain, no gain IS NOT the way to treat your back pain. Just like dating, you want to flirt with the pain. Recognize it when you have it and listen to your body because pain is a very normal response and we don't want to ignore it. Over time of working into the discomfort and building your resiliency will reduce your pain and you will be able to do more.

Find out why an MRI for your lower back pain may not be the best option for you! 

In summary, physical therapy exercises to relieve lower back pain in your home are very effective but they do require effort. They aren’t crazy difficult or complicated but they can be frustrating to learn at first. I have found that these exercises are beneficial but you need to be dedicated to completing them. Physiotherapy is an active approach to your health, that means it requires your resources such as it’s time and effort. There isn’t a magic cure but for those who stick with it, they experience significant relief.

Give yourself some grace as you go and realize you may not be perfect at first but modify and adapt as needed. You got this!

Revision Health Services offers telehealth for Florida residents as well as massage and physical therapy locally in Jacksonville, Nocatee, and St. Johns, Florida. To find out if our services could be the best fit for you, reach out and let's chat!

Until next time, stay healthy, keep moving, and take care of yourself.

Dr. Michael Derry is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and board certified in orthopedics. He is very passionate about treating lower back pain and helping people build their resiliency. He has spent time assisting at universities as well as managing large clinics before starting his own practice in Jacksonville, FL.

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