I’m an Army Physical Therapist: These 3 Simple Steps Improve Low Back Pain in 10 Minutes

By Jesse Hall, MTI Contributor 

A loss of mobility—not a weak back—is the most common cause of low back pain. 

And fortunately, the solution to mobility loss is often simple: what you have to do is stretch the painful joint by pushing into the stiffness over and over again until it loosens up. If you push at the right angle and with the right amount of pressure, you’ll “unlock” the joint, and be amazed at how much better you feel so quickly. 

As an Army Physical Therapist, this is the exact process I use to fix low back pain for Soldiers. Close to 400 Soldiers a year come to my office with low back pain, and the vast majority of them walk out feeling better than they walked in. 

So, if you have low back pain, this self-assessment process I am going to outline below is for you. And if you don’t have pain right now, save this article because it may be your best friend down the road. 

By the end of this article, you’ll know how to do 3 things: 

  1. Determine if you’re safe to self-assess or if you need professional help
  2. Set your pain baselines
  3. Decrease your pain and improve your mobility
The Stretch Test for Low Back Pain: 

Step 1: Determine If You Can Safely Self-Assess or Need Professional Help

Ask yourself the following questions. If you say yes to any, I recommend you get professional medical help about your pain. If you answer no to all of them, continue with caution to step 2. 

  1. My low back pain was caused by a sudden traumatic injury, like a car accident or a fall from a ladder
  2. I have pain, numbness, tingling, or burning going from my lower back into either leg
  3. I don’t know what caused my back to hurt, and what makes it worse is completely unpredictable
  4. My back pain is a 9 or 10/10
  5. I can’t use the restroom normally since the injury; I either have trouble going or I can’t hold it
  6. I recently lost (or gained) 10 or more pounds for no apparent reason
  7. I have a fever and the area of my back pain is red, hot to touch, and tender to touch
  8. I am scared to move
  9. I do NOT think it would be safe for me to do guided exercises to self-assess my low back pain

Step 2: Set Your Pain Baselines

Before doing any exercises, you need to do the movements that increase your back pain. Why? Because you won’t know if you’re back pain has changed unless you measure the starting point.

This is just like troubleshooting why your car won’t start. After each thing you try to fix, you should always try to start it again. You know you corrected the problem when the car starts, just like you’ll know your low back pain has improved when these movements (AKA your baselines) feel better.

Most commonly, for low back pain, these movements are bending forward to touch the toes and bending backwards with your hands on your lower back. Other movements work too, but keep them simple and easy to recheck. 

One common issue people come to me with is low back pain with driving. Pain with driving is a good example of a pain baseline. If you have this issue, try to put numbers to your pain. How is it on a scale of 1-10? How many minutes until the pain comes on? If you know those numbers, you can use them as baselines. 

Step 3: Make Your Baselines Better/Improve your Pain and Mobility

How the stretches at the bottom of this article work: 

At the bottom of this article, there are 5 stretches. The goal is to find the single stretch that makes your pain baselines feel better… and then do 100 or more reps of that single stretch every day. Really simple. 

Stretch #1 is the most likely to improve your baselines, so you’ll start there. You’ll try the stretch, recheck your baselines (example: touch your toes again), log what happened to your baselines in the chart below, and determine what to do next. You’ll work through the stretches  from #1 to #5, but stop once you find the stretch that helps. At that point, simply do only the stretch that helps and don’t worry about the others.. 

And one important note: you’ve already said it is safe to self-assess your low back pain in step 1 so it is okay to do these stretches, even if they cause pain. Often times, you have to stretch into low back stiffness to make it better. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, I suggest you seek professional help. 

This table is to help with finding that single most helpful stretch. 


  1. I always recommend you do AT LEAST 20 reps before rechecking your baselines. There is no problem with doing 40, or even 100 before rechecking. The more you do, the easier it is to detect any change. 
  2. If I recheck my baselines after 20 reps and my back feels better, I’m going to do 20 more and recheck again, just to make sure it is the right exercise. I want to see back to back improvements before I make a decision. 
Exercise Sets x Repetitions What Happened to Baselines Next Action
Press Up (1) 1-2×20 Feels better, worse, or same Do more, or do next exercise
Press Up With Pressure (2)
Crooked Press Up (3)
Seated Rotation (4)
Knees to Chest (5)

Here’s a personal example from October when I hurt the left side of my back deadlifting:

Step 1: I answered no to all questions and therefore was safe to self-assess

Step 2: I tried touching my toes and could barely get to my knees because of pain; that became my baseline

Step 3: 

  • I tried stretch #1; no change
  • I tried stretch #2; no change
  • I tried stretch #3; felt better and could move better, so I did more. This became my go to stretch until my pain went away in 1 week
Exercise Sets x Repetitions What Happened to Baseline (Touching Toes) Next Action
Press Up (1) 2×20 Felt the same Next exercise
Press Up with Pressure (2) 2×20 Felt the same Next exercise
Crooked Left Press Up (3) (left because my pain was on the left) 2×20 Felt better and I went down further towards my toes Did at least 100, typically 300 per day
Seated Rotation (4) Did not do
Knees to Chest (5) Did not do

Once you find the stretch that is improving your baselines, your job is to just be patient and do it consistently. 

I tell my patients to do at least 100 reps per day. But, if they feel like they are getting better, feel free to do more! Try 200 per day. I did about 300 per day and I was back to running and deadlifting pain free within a week.

Typically, the improvement is only temporary. Odds are your back will hurt just as much and you’ll be just as stiff if you go and sit on the couch for 5 minutes. 

Unfortunately, that’s just the nature of these things. What’s important is finding the right stretch for you, doing a lot, and then checking your baselines at least once per day to track your improvement. The first 100 reps or so often help quite a bit but progress slows down after, so be patients once you find the helpful exercise. 

Just ask yourself this once you have found the helpful stretch: Does today feel better than yesterday? If so, good! Keep going. More cowbell. 

The first few days after an injury are typically the worse. Inflammation lasts about 3-5 days, and during that time, there’s potential that none of these stretches help. 

No worries: in those instances, I just tell my patients to rest it, protect it, and try the stretches again in 3 days. 

In conclusion: this isn’t going to help everyone—but I bet you it’s close to an 80% solution. And for those that it does help, I hope it allows you to continue to train, stay in the fight, and get back to your mission sooner. 

Got a question or feedback for me? I can be reached at jessehallpt@gmail.com.

Jesse is a US Army Captain and Brigade Physical Therapist and Strength & Conditioning Coach. 

All content found on Mountain Tactical Institute is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website. 



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