If you've got lower-back stiffness, it's probably has to do with a pair of core muscles called the quadratus lumborum (QL). The QL muscles run down the sides of your spine in your lower back and connect your pelvis to your spine and your last rib.
And for muscles you've probably never heard of, they do some pretty important jobs: Not only do you use your QL muscles to sit, stand and walk upright, but they also stabilize your pelvis and play a part in breathing, says Winnie Yu. PT, DPT, CPT, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York.
Your QL muscles work together with your abs and hips to transfer forces between your upper and lower body, according to the National Council on Strength & Fitness. So when they're too tight, you're in trouble. Tense QL muscles can prompt pain, make everyday tasks feel more tedious and affect your ability to make the most out of your workouts.
But you don't have to let tight QL muscles mess with your quality of life. Luckily, incorporating QL exercises and stretches into your daily routine can improve flexibility and alleviate aches and pains in your lower back.
Lower back pain can have many causes. While developing a strong core is always a good thing, be sure to speak with your doctor or physical therapist before doing any exercises for your back pain. Some quadratus lumborum exercises may be contraindicated in certain situations.
8 Quadratus Lumborum Stretches and Exercises
Both QL exercises and stretches are important parts of building a healthy lower back. Strong muscles help support the spine, while flexible muscles enable better movement, so make sure to include both in your workout routine.
The QL stretches (courtesy of Yu) and quadratus lumborum exercises below will help you engage and lengthen stiff side muscles, release lower-back tension and strengthen your core. By doing these QL-strengthening movements every day, you'll build core stability and keep your lumbar region loose and limber, reducing your risk of pain or injury.
Move 1: Seated Side Reach With Knee Anchor
- Sit on the floor with your left leg straight and your right knee bent.
- Grab your right knee with your left hand, anchoring yourself, and slowly reach overhead toward the left side with your right arm.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds and do slow, deep breaths, aiming to sink deeper into the side stretch with every exhale.
- Repeat on the other side.
By using your knee as an anchor, you can get a deeper stretch, which is especially beneficial for someone who may have decreased mobility and flexibility, Yu says.
Move 2: Modified Extended Side Angle Pose
- Start in a low lunge position with your left foot forward.
- Place both hands on the floor on either side of your left foot.
- On an exhale, lift your right arm off the floor toward the ceiling as you rotate your trunk and pelvis toward the right.
- Reach long through your right arm to an overhead position to feel the lengthening through your right side.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
“This pose, similar to the Utthita Parsvakonasana in yoga, is a more advanced stretch for the quadratus lumborum,” Yu says. “By being in a rotated lunge position, you will also target thoracic (upper back) mobility as well as lengthening of the inner thigh and groin muscles.”
If you are unable to place your hands on the floor, Yu suggests resting your elbow on your front thigh as an alternative.
Move 3: Side-Lying Dynamic Quadratus Lumborum Stretch
- Sit with both knees bent.
- Place your left hand to your side, and swing both legs toward the right.
- Lower down to your left elbow to achieve a left-side lying position.
- Reach with your right arm overhead while letting your head relax down toward the floor. Simultaneously lengthen your right hip toward your feet for a deeper side stretch.
- Hold for a moment at the end range, then engage your core muscles to help bring you back to the center and repeat.
- Repeat for 30 seconds, then switch to the opposite side.
“This dynamic quadratus lumborum stretch can be a great option for those that wake up with morning stiffness or feel tight after a long bout of sitting,” Yu says.
It’s also an excellent exercise to add to a warm-up. That’s because the dynamic movement brings more blood flow, and therefore oxygen, to the surrounding muscles and increases muscle temperature, Yu says. Activating these muscles before exercising helps to reduce your risk of injury during physical activity, she adds.
Move 4: Standing Quadratus Lumborum Stretch
- Stand approximately 2 to 3 feet away from a wall so that you're standing perpendicular to it.
- Reach both hands overhead toward the wall.
- Gently push your hips away from the wall to feel a deeper stretch along the outside of your trunk.
- If you’re able, cross your outside leg over the other (toward the wall) and push your hips farther away from the wall for a deeper stretch.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Yu loves to do this move after a long stretch of sitting or standing to loosen stiff side-body muscles. All you need is a door, wall or flat surface to perform this stretch, and it can be done anytime or anywhere, she says. “You can add this to your work break, exercise cooldown or daily routine.”
Move 5: Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Keep your arms by your sides on the floor.
- Tucking in your pelvis to brace your core, press through your feet to lift your hips until they are in line with your knees. Squeeze your glutes at the top.
- Hold the position for three deep breaths, then release.
This QL-strengthening exercise helps to open up your hips while targeting your glutes, hamstrings, and core. By working your overall core, you'll take the load off your lower back and reduce pain.
Move 6: Plank
1. Start in a quadruped position with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your hips over your knees.
2. Brace your core, lift your hips and extend your legs long behind you. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your heels. Squeeze your glutes and quads to engage your lower body.
3. Aim to hold this position for 30 seconds, then release.
A high plank forces you to recruit the muscles in your entire body, including your QL. This QL exercise trains core and pelvic stability, which is necessary when doing sports or daily activities that involve balance.
Move 7: Superman
- Lie on your stomach with your arms extended above your head.
- Brace your core and lift your head, arms and legs off the floor a few inches. Keep your arms and legs straight and your upper arms in line with your ears.
- Hold for 3 seconds, then release.
The superman exercise strengthens your lower back and core, helping you build more stability and reducing back pain. It also works to improve your posture by stretching your upper back and shoulders, and opening your chest.
Move 8: Side Plank
1. Lie on your right side and stack your right hip directly on top of your left. Place your right forearm on the ground, making sure that your elbow is right under your shoulder.
2. Keeping your hips and shoulders square, lift your hips off the ground until your body forms a diagonal line from head to feet. You should feel your right obliques engaged.
3. Aim to hold for 30 seconds, then release and switch sides.
Exercises that target your obliques — the muscles along the sides of your torso — will also work the QL.
What Causes Tightness and Pain in the Quadratus Lumborum?
Like any other muscle, overuse, stress and strain can cause discomfort in the QL muscles. Poor posture can also put stress on these muscles.
"After prolonged bouts of sitting or repetitive lifting, turning or twisting, this muscle, along with some other hip muscles, may feel tight and restricted," Yu says.
The quadratus lumborum can also become overactive to provide stability in your lower back when the surrounding lumbar and pelvic muscles are weak, Yu says. In other words, the QL muscles will compensate for other muscles that aren't functioning properly. But over time, this compensatory action can lead to tension, strain or pain.
What's more, "back pain injuries, such as herniated discs or inflamed musculature in the lower spine, can also contribute to abnormal firing and nerve conduction to the quadratus lumborum muscle," Yu adds.
In addition to stretching the QL muscles daily, strengthening the other postural muscles can also be very helpful to maintain proper balance and alignment, Yu says.