Lower back pain is very common and can be the result of a variety of causes. One of these isn’t usually the primary suspect but it occurs more often than one might think: constriction of the piriformis muscle.
This small slim muscle is behind the gluteus maximus, connecting the spine to the top of the femur. If the piriformis muscle tightens, gets pulled, becomes inflamed, or spasms, an effective piriformis stretch can restore muscle function and relieve pain.
Exercising and stretching the piriformis takes a conscious effort but it’s worth it for both prevention and pain relief. The following eight stretches you can do to give this often-overlooked muscle some attention:
1. Supine Piriformis Stretches
A) Lying stretch
- Lying on your back, place your hand on the same side of one knee, with the other hand on the raised heel.
- Gently raise the knee toward your shoulder and cross the calf across your body toward the opposite shoulder.
- Hold for 5 seconds, then release.
- Repeat with the other leg. As you get used to this piriformis stretch, extend the holding time of the stretch up to 60 seconds.
B) Similar to A) but without the crossover:
- Raise one knee and the same-side hand toward the shoulder on the same side.
- Cross your calf across the body but keep the knee in line with the shoulder on the same side.
- Hold for 5 seconds, then release and repeat on the other side.
C) For a deeper stretch:
- While lying on your back, bend both knees and place one ankle over the opposite leg, just above the knee.
- Raise the bottom leg off the floor toward your chest until you feel the pull in the pelvis.
- Hold for 5 seconds.
- Slowly release the lower leg back to the floor, straighten the top leg, and switch sides.
2. Standing Piriformis Stretch
This exercise will stretch your piriformis and your glutes. You’ll involve the piriformis muscle as your weight shifts and pelvic balance is engaged. Remember that your glute muscles cover the piriformis, so it’s a good idea to exercise them together rather than trying to isolate one or the other. If doing this piriformis stretch hurts your joints, skip it.
- Stand with your back against a wall and walk your feet forward 24 inches. Position your knees over your ankles, then lower your hips 45 degrees toward the floor.
- Lift your right foot off the ground and place the outside of your right ankle on your left knee.
- Lean forward and lower your chest toward your knees while maintaining a straight back.
- Stop when you feel a stretch in your glutes.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch legs and do the same.