Disclaimer: lower back pain and injury can be serious issues. This information is intended to be a helpful resource, but should not be taken as medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you’re having back pain, my best recommendation to you is to see your doctor and look into the option of physical therapy. As an additional note, if you choose to do these exercise, please do not proceed if you experience joint pain.
Maybe you sit all day for your job, or you stand all day; maybe it’s January and you’re new to the gym or just getting back to it after a long hiatus. No matter the WHY, you might be experiencing low back pain.
It’s one of the most common ailments I’ve run across in working with people from athletes to new exercisers, and speaking from experience, it can be debilitating and soul crushing. It’s something that I’d wish on no one, but the statistics on the number of us who will experience it at some point in our lives are distressingly bad.
But it’s not an inevitability! Depending on the cause of your back pain, there are things that you can do to recover and to prevent it from happening in the first place. For new and de-conditioned exercisers, oftentimes the source of the pain comes from stresses that are caused by an imbalance between the load you’re asking your back to deal with and the amount of strength it has. There are so many exercise options for building up balanced strength, but here are a few of my favorites:
The Glute Bridge
This exercise is intended to activate and build the glute muscles. Because of all the sitting we do, we often unintentionally neglect our glutes and this can cause a cascade of problems. The glute bridge is a great start to fixing this.
- Lay on your back with knees bent so that your ankles are below or just forward of your knees
- Lift your hips toward the ceiling by pushing down through your heels and squeezing your glutes
- Hold at the top for 5 seconds
- Slowly return hips to ground
The Back Extension
Because we have a cultural obsession with having “great abs,” we often neglect the back. Otherwise known as the superwoman/man, this exercise hits the glutes and back muscles, helping to build balanced core strength and thus lumbar (low back) stability.
- Lie on your stomach, face down with arms extended out above your head
- Lift your shoulders and knees off the ground – you should feel this in your back and glute (butt) muscles
- Hold the position for 3 seconds, then lower back to the ground
- STOP immediately if you feel any pain or pinching in you lower back
- If this is too much to start, try lifting only your shoulders and leaving your legs on the ground
The Dead Bug
Go ahead an roll back over onto your back for this next one. All those situps and crunches that have long been considered the go-to core exercises tend to target your Rectus Abdominis muscles, but your core is a lot more than that one muscle group (not to mention how bad these exercises can be for back pain). To achieve well-rounded core strength and stability, exercises like the dead bug should be incorporated into your routine.
- Lie on your back with your arms extended straight above your shoulders and knees above your hips with knees bent at a 90° angle
- Engage your core and think of keeping your lower back from moving away from the floor
- Extend your left arm and right leg toward the floor
- Allow your hand and heel to tap the floor but not rest on it
- Bring your left arm / right leg back to the starting position
- Repeat with right arm and left leg
Side Plank (on Knees)
Continuing on the topic of core stability, this one will help develop the lateral core muscles providing spinal stability.
- Set up on your side, facing forward with your elbow below your shoulder and knees bent at 90 degrees
- Lift your hips toward the ceiling
- Hold for 15 – 30 seconds depending on your strength
- For a more difficult movement, keep knees straight instead of bent
The Clam Shell
All this sitting that we do can leave us having in a way “forgotten” how to use our glute muscles. We need to both retrain and strengthen them. One of the most affected areas is our lateral hips – put your hands on your hips like Wonder Woman and you’re resting your hands on the area I’m talking about – the Gluteus Medius. That’s where the Clam Shell comes in.
- Lay on your side with your feet together and knees bent; you should be able to draw a straight line through your head, hips, and feet.
- With your heels together, lift your top knee
- Return to starting position
- Make sure to keep your hips stacked through the movement – don’t lean forward or back
- Complete 8-15 repetitions
- Switch to the other side and repeat
The Hip Stretch
OK. We’ve focused on strength and stability, but mobility is important here too. The front of our hips get shortened (tight) from being in a “closed” position for so long when we sit. This can pull things out of alignment and contribute to low back problems. The best thing you can do is spend more time in varying positions throughout the day, but here’s another option.
- Kneel in a lunge position – one knee on the ground, the other bent at slightly greater than 90 degree angle in front of you
- Lean forward into the front leg until you feel a stretch through the front of your hip
- Don’t overdo it; stretching too far can force you into bad position and be counter-productive
- Don’t arch your lower back to “get further into the stretch” – this can exacerbate low back pain and shifts the stretch to the quad instead of the hip flexors
Lower back pain is a very common condition that can wreak havoc on your quality of life, but there’s hope and possible prevention!
There are so many great exercises for strength and stability of the core, these are just a few of my favorite moves from my experience with my own body and in working with others as a post-orthopedic exercise specialist (after being cleared by their doctors!). If you’re interested in learning more, click here to find out more about working with me.