Exercise Your Hips and Upper Back to Help Low Back Pain

BY Jason D’Amelio TIMENovember 14, 2015 PRINT

If you’re looking for relief from a tight and aching lower back, the solution may not be found in the lower back but in the musculature above and below it. 

If you suffer from lower back pain, and it’s not from an injury, you could very well have issues with the mobility of your hips and thoracic spine (midback). Our ankles, hips, and thoracic spine are designed for mobility in contrast to the cervical (neck) and lumbar (low back) spines, which are designed for stability. 

Lack of movement in the hips or thoracic spine, will lead to increased stress and excessive movement in the low back.

So a lack of movement in the hips or thoracic spine will lead to increased stress and excessive movement in the low back. The solution is a combination of mobility exercises for the hips and thoracic spine and stability exercises for the lumbar spine.

To test for hip mobility, lie on the floor or a table with both legs straight. Pull one knee straight into your chest, not out to the side. If the other leg lifts off the floor then you have tight hip flexors. If your quadriceps (muscles on the front of your thigh) are tight then the bent leg will want to straighten out.

Repeat this test with the other leg bent to assess the mobility in your other hip.

Another way to test hip mobility is to lie on your back on the floor, bring one leg up, and rest your ankle on top of the quad of the other leg just above the knee. You should have less than a fist-width of space between your bent knee and the floor. If you do not, then your hips are tight on that side.

Hip Mobility Exercises

1. Fire Hydrants

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This exercise looks a bit like a dog relieving itself on a fire hydrant.

  • Get down on all fours, making sure to keep your hands and knees shoulder and hip width apart.
  • Brace your core, and without moving your hips, raise one thigh out to the right.
  • Lower the thigh back down, keeping the knee bent throughout the entire movement.

Repeat 10 times on each side.

2. Straight-Leg Extensions

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  • Again on all fours, kick one leg straight back and up until the leg is parallel to the floor.
  • Then return to all fours.
  • Lead the movement with the heel of the foot to engage the glutes. Maintain a straight leg throughout the movement.

Repeat 10 times on each side.

3. Lateral Swings

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  • Start on your hands and knees, and kick one leg back similarly to the straight-leg extension exercise, but instead of just lifting the leg up and down, swing it out the side until it is perpendicular to your torso.
  • Keep arms straight and hips square to the floor without tilting over to the opposite side.
  • Slowly bring the leg back down.

Repeat 10 times on each side.

4. Bent Knee, Heel to Ceiling

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  • Start on all fours and make sure your core is engaged (your back is not sagging or arching).
  • Slowly lift one leg to the ceiling making sure the knee is bent at 90 degrees as you press the sole of your foot upward until the thigh is parallel to the floor.
  • Slowly lower to the start position.
  • Avoid rotating your hips by keeping the shoulders and hips square to the floor.

Repeat 10 times on each side.

Thoracic Mobility Exercise

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  • On your hands and knees, reach one arm under your chest as far as you can to the opposite side.
  • Once you have reached as far as you can, rotate your torso back, reaching the same arm up to the ceiling.
  • You can modify the exercise by bending your arm and placing your hand behind your head. The difference is that your elbow leads the movement instead of your hand.

Repeat this reach and rotation sequence 8–10 times on each side.

Jason D’Amelio, MS, ATC, is a board-certified and licensed Athletic Trainer & Active Release Technique practitioner. He specializes in functional and athletic-based training for people of all levels. His clients include professional athletes in the NFL, MLB, pro soccer, and collegiate athletics. Email him at  

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