9 stretches you can do at your desk to alleviate back pain

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Anyone who sits at a desk all day will likely have felt the familiar twinges of back pain at some point. In fact, did you know that over a third of UK office workers experience back problems

Often, this is due to a poor desk, chair, and display screen equipment (DSE) set-up. Whether you’ve already had a DSE assessment and are in the process of optimising your workstation configuration or you know your desk set-up isn’t giving you the correct support, there are some simple exercises you can do to relieve that pesky backache.

Back stretches for DSE workers: what you’ll need

The beauty of these back stretches is that you need very little in order to alleviate any aches, pains or discomfort. However, it’s important to make sure that you have a sturdy, stationary chair that won’t move while you complete the seated exercises. 

You can do these at any time throughout the day to give your muscles and joints a stretch and to have a break from your screen.

Whether you work in a shared office or from home, here are 9 quick but effective stretches to try.

1. Standing Trunk Extension 

This stretch can help strengthen your lower back muscles. It works your hips, too, and is great for relieving lower back ache.

  • First, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Place your hands on the small of your back (this offers support).
  • Slowly lean backwards and arch your back. You should start to feel a gentle stretch in your abdominal muscles. 
  • Hold the stretch for 15 to 20 seconds, then repeat 3 to 5 times.
  • Alternatively, you can hold for a shorter time (up to 5 seconds) but repeat the stretch 10 times — this is a good way to increase your spine’s range of motion.

2. Standing Side Trunk Stretch

If you’ve noticed tension in your obliques, this side stretch is a great way to release it. It helps stretch and strengthen the intercostal muscles, which support your ribs.

  • To start, stand up straight, with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Raise your hands above your head and interlock your fingers — your palms will be facing the ceiling.
  • Slowly bend your trunk to one side, keeping your elbows straight. 
  • Bend as far as you comfortably can, and hold the position for 5 seconds. 
  • Repeat on the other side.
  • You might like to do the stretch a couple of times on each side.

3. Standing Backbend

As well as relieving tension in your lower back, this offers a great stretch for your shoulders, neck, and chest, too. Not only does it improve your spine’s flexibility but it can also give your digestive, cardiovascular and respiratory systems a boost. 

  • First, stand up straight. You want your feet to be slightly apart but not quite shoulder-width.
  • Interlace your fingers behind your lower back, so your knuckles are pointing towards the floor. 
  • Ground your feet and draw your knees up (but don’t lock them). Tighten the muscles in your thighs, glutes, and back.
  • Next, roll your shoulders back and stretch your arms down so your lower back arches. 
  • You might also like to tip your head back and look up to the ceiling.
  • Hold the pose for 5 seconds, then slowly lift up. To do this, inhale and lift your torso so your neck and head follow until you’re back in your starting position.
  • Repeat 2 or 3 times.

4. Seated Gentle Backbend

While this is similar to the standing backbend, this stretch is a little less intense and works your upper and mid-spine, rather than the lower back.

  • First, sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor and place your palms on your lower back. Position your hands so your fingers face down towards the floor and your thumbs wrap around your hips, towards the front of your body.
  • Inhale as you press your hands into your lower back firmly but gently.
  • As you breathe out, gently arch your spine, tipping your head back. Tilt your chin to the ceiling but be careful of dropping your head back too far.
  • Hold the pose for a few deep breaths.
  • Slowly bring yourself back to your starting position, with a neutral spine, and repeat the stretch 3 to 5 times.

5. Overhead Shoulder Stretch

An excellent stretch for the neck, shoulders, and upper back, this exercise can help alleviate tension from hunching over a computer and helps reset your postural alignment.

  • Begin standing up straight, with your body facing forward.
  • Then, raise your right arm straight up overhead and bend it at the elbow so the hand is by your upper back.
  • Place your left hand on the raised arm’s elbow and gently apply pressure to stretch the right shoulder. 
  • Hold the position for 5 seconds. You should feel a good stretch along your right arm and obliques.
  • Repeat on the other side, so your left elbow is raised above.

6. Neck and Chest Stretch

This seated exercise involves tilting your head and chest to the side to ease pain in the upper back. It works your neck muscles as well as the pectorals and obliques.

  • To start, sit up straight with your feet flat on the floor. Rest your hands at the base of your skull with your fingers intertwined. Your thumbs can point down your neck.
  • Gently tilt your head back, resting against your hands, and look up towards the ceiling.
  • Inhale deeply and then exhale. As you breathe out, move your upper body to the left, so your left elbow points towards the floor and your right elbow points up to the ceiling.
  • Pause for a couple of deep breaths, then ease yourself back up to sitting so your spine is straight.
  • Repeat the exercise on the other side, so your right elbow points down to the ground and your left is angled upwards. 
  • Alternate sides until you’ve done the stretch 3 times on each.

7. Forward Fold

This simple seated stretch is ideal for releasing tension in the lower back.

  • All you need to do is sit on a sturdy chair with your feet flat on the floor and your spine straight.
  • Hinge forward on your hips, letting your torso fold down between your legs.
  • When you’ve reached your maximum hinge, round your spine and drop your head forward, towards the floor.
  • To complete the exercise, gently and slowly roll up to seated. 
  • Repeat as many times as you feel you need to.

8. Seated Cat-Cow

If you’re familiar with yoga, you may well have tried this stretch on your hands and knees before. However, a seated version is also an excellent way to relieve tension and pain in your back.

The combination of two positions also works your core muscles and strengthens the spine.

  • Firstly, sit up straight on your office chair and plant your feet on the floor. Your legs and knees should be at a 90-degree angle.
  • Place your hands on your knees so the fingers are all pointing inwards and the heel of each hand is on the outside of the leg.
  • Breathe in deeply. As you exhale, push firmly into your hands and arch your back — use your entire spine. Your face will point towards the ceiling.
  • Inhale again, whilst rolling your shoulders forward and pulling your belly button in. Drop your chin to your chest and push your hands towards your knees.
  • As you exhale again, reverse the motion — push your chest forwards, through your arms, and arch your spine.
  • Repeat the cat-cow combo 3 to 5 times, going with the rhythm of your breath.

9. Spinal Twist

This final seated stretch is an excellent way to mobilise your spine and improve your overall back health. It encourages flexibility in your pelvis, hips and shoulder girdle, as well as the spine.

  • Sit up tall in your chair and inhale. As you breathe in, raise your arms straight up.
  • As you breathe out, twist your torso to the left, bringing your right hand to rest on your left knee.
  • Inhale deeply and, as you exhale again, gently move further into the stretch, lengthening your spine even more.
  • Return to your starting position, then repeat the action on the other side, twisting to the right.

Support your back health with Workhappy

These exercises offer a great way to stretch all areas of your back and alleviate the aches, pains, and discomfort that can arise from working at a desk. It’s also important to make sure you have the right workstation set-up to promote back health.

Problems can also manifest as tension in the shoulders and neck, so you should take a look at our desk-suitable stretches to relieve neck tension.

Whether you’re an employer looking to support your team’s physical health and wellbeing or you’re an employee in need of a better desk configuration, speak to the Workhappy team. We have a range of DSE assessment options (including virtual DSE assessments and online self-assessments) to ensure all employees can work happily and healthily.