Exercises to Beat Your Back Pain

After coughs and respiratory infections, back pain is the most common reason for seeing a doctor in the United States. In fact, about 80% of Americans will feel back pain at some point in their lives, and back pain is the leading cause of job-related disability worldwide. It's estimated that around $100 billion is spent on treating back pain in the United States.

However, surgery is rarely needed. Instead, exercise and functional body mechanics changes are the key methods of reducing this common discomfort.

Below, we review causes and solutions for back pain as well as how to prevent it from developing in the first place. We also give you some of the best exercises you can do to beat any back pain you're experiencing.

What Causes Back Pain?

Back pain comes in two forms: acute and chronic. Acute pain arises when you injure yourself from a fall, sports injury, or perhaps improper heavy lifting. It occurs suddenly and you usually feel it immediately. It could be a disc or pulled muscle, but whatever it is, if this happens, you should seek medical attention right away. This is particularly important if your pain is accompanied by other symptoms such as weakness of the legs or stomach pain, as another medical issue could be present that needs treatment.

Chronic pain, on the other hand, creeps up over time. It may be due to conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or ruptured or bulging discs. The over-stretching or tearing of muscle and ligaments is another common cause of both acute and chronic back pain. Interestingly, back pain generally comes from one of two extremes: too much or not enough activity.

Too Much Activity

For the active person, chronic back pain can come from excessive, repetitive pounding on the spine, as in running, jumping, or other high-impact activities. Think of the “wear and tear” that happens on cars or appliances—the same holds true for our bodies.

It can also be from repetitive twisting and turning, as in swinging a golf club or a tennis racket. Essentially, there are endless things that cause wear and tear on the back.

Not Enough Activity

Sedentary people experience the same kind of pain for the opposite reasons. Muscles that go unused become stiff and inflexible. Sitting all day causes tight hip flexors, poor posture, and weak abdominals.

When your muscles are limited to the same basic body position day in and day out, they do not learn to move safely and freely through different ranges of motion and are injured more easily with sudden movements.

In addition, the body is one long kinetic chain. Tight hamstrings or hip flexors turn into tight hips and glutes, which pull on the back and create pain.

Unfortunately, research shows that many primary care practitioners do not recommend increased activity to their patients who might benefit from it. While many doctors are aware that exercise is an effective treatment, they may believe their patients won't be receptive to increasing their activity levels.

What's the Solution?

Back pain treatment includes changes in body mechanics and specific exercises that serve the dual purposes of easing pain and preventing another injury. These movements help you cope while also reducing the likelihood of re-injury, exacerbation of the current issue, and development of the condition in the first place.

Body Mechanics

Whether your back pain is from overuse, underuse, or something completely different, such as an accident, the question remains, what can you do about it? If improper lifting, sitting, or standing are the problem, start with proper body mechanics.

  • Lift properly: Rather than lifting something by bending over and using your back, bend your knees to drop your upper body down to pick it up using the power of your legs. Engage your core as you perform this movement.
  • Sit properlyTry to get a chair with good back support. If needed, roll up a towel or use a pillow to place behind your lumbar spine. Never slouch. Keep your abs pulled in and your shoulders back and down. Get up and walk at least once an hour, preferably more often.
  • Stand properlyPull your low abs in, tuck your pelvis, and, if possible, place one foot on a stool or ledge. Adjust your leg position when standing for long periods. Take frequent breaks to stretch or walk, if you can.

Back Exercises

A vast body of scientific research shows that the best medicine for dealing with back pain—and preventing it—is exercise. In fact, organizations such as Harvard Medical School and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons list exercise as their number-one solution for low back pain prevention. The American Council on Exercise also recommends targeted exercise for low back pain.

Exercise may seem overwhelming when it comes to dealing with back pain, as it might be challenging or counterintuitive to consider working out when your back is hurting. However, as much as you might worry that more movement will be painful, you're likely to experience the opposite if you give it a try.

However, the type of exercise you perform is going to make a difference, so following specific workout recommendations is key. Overall, when it comes to exercising to relieve back pain, there are two important goals:

  • Strengthening the entire core
  • Stretching the back and legs

Below are some effective exercises to try. Practicing them at least once or twice a week can help to prevent or lessen back pain.

Be sure to clear any new exercise plan with your doctor, particularly if you have any concerns, your pain is severe and/or long-lasting, you have a related medical condition, and/or you are new to exercise.

Full Body Roll-Up

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This move will strengthen your core in a slow, controlled motion, teach you to articulate your spine, and stretch the muscles in the back and legs that cause tightness in the back.

  1. Lie flat on your back with your arms extended overhead.
  2. Inhale and sit up, lifting your arms to the sky. Exhale, and slowly roll up into a “C” curve, reaching for your toes. (Think about sucking your belly button to your spine, and activate your transverse abdominus.)
  3. Inhale and start to slowly go back in a C curve.
  4. Exhale as you uncurl your body one vertebra at a time back into the mat.

Be sure to keep your feet on the ground as you move slowly. Perform 6 to 8 roll-ups.

If this is too difficult or painful, start in a semi-reclined position (using pillows or a foam wedge) instead of laying flat. Perform the exercise from this position until you develop more core strength.

Glute Bridge

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Glute bridges will strengthen your glutes and hamstrings as well as your low back. They will also give the chest and shoulders a nice stretch.

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent, hip-distance apart, and your feet flat on the mat, stacked under the knees.
  2. Engage your core and squeeze your glutes as you lift your hips up to a bridge. Hold, squeezing tight, and return to the mat with control.

Repeat 6 to 8 times.

Cat Stretch

Cat stretch

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

A traditional cat pose from yoga will effectively stretch the entire spine as well as promote spinal flexibility.

  1. Begin on your hands and knees, with hands directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips.
  2. Start with your spine in a “neutral” or long position, then slowly tuck your tailbone and lower the crown of your head, so your back gently rounds.
  3. Draw your navel up to your spine and breathe gently as you hold the stretch.

Perform 6 to 8 reps.

Bird Dog

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The bird dog teaches the body to use core stability, strengthening the abs and, in turn, the low back. It also lengthens the spinal column and improves posture.

  1. Kneel on the mat on all fours. Reach one arm out in front of you, draw in the abdominals, and extend the opposite leg behind you.
  2. Draw the extended leg and arm back down into starting position.
  3. Repeat on the other side.

Perform 6 to 8 reps per side. Move slowly and steadily, holding ​the arm and leg out momentarily before switching.

Forearm Side Plank

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

These planks will strengthen your obliques and the stabilizers in your mid-section, which can support your back during exercise.

  1. Begin lying on the floor with your forearm on the mat and shoulder stacked over the elbow. Legs are long with feet stacked on top of each other.​
  2. Lift your body into a side plank position, keeping your lower knee on the floor and your abdominals engaged. With control, move your hips up and down.

Repeat 6 to 8 times per side. To add challenge, you can hold the position at the top for a few seconds or longer in between each rep.

To modify, begin with your knees bent and stacked instead of stretching your legs out long.

Downward Dog

Downward dog

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

This move stretches the low back, hamstrings, lower legs, and feet. 

  1. Begin in a kneeling position on your mat with hands directly under shoulders, fingers spread wide.
  2. Tuck your toes under and engage your abdominals as you push your body up off the mat so only your hands and feet are on the mat, hips to the ceiling.
  3. Press through your hands, moving your chest gently toward your thighs and your heels gently toward the floor.
  4. Relax your head and neck, and breathe fully.

Hold for 30 seconds.

Forearm Plank on Knees

Lengthen your spine with this forearm plank.

This move will strengthen all of your core muscles and teaches lengthening and better posture.

  1. Begin lying on the floor with your forearms flat on the floor, making sure that your elbows are aligned directly under your shoulders.
  2. Engage your core and raise your body up off the floor, keeping your forearms and knees on the floor and your body in a straight line from your head to your knees. Keep your abdominals engaged and try not to let your hips rise or drop.

Hold forearm plank for 30 seconds to start, trying to progress to a 60-second hold.

Mid-Back Extension

Mid-back extensions help strengthen your back and help deal with back pain.

A mid-back extension strengthens your entire back as well as your transverse abdominus. It also promotes proper posture.

  1. Start lying face down on the mat. Lift abs away from the mat to engage them and slide the shoulders down the back. The head is lifted in a low hover. Your body is one long line.​
  2. Using your back muscles and core, lift the chest away from the mat into extension as you exhale. Think of lengthening from the crown of the head.
  3. Inhale and return back down to the mat slowly, getting longer through the spine as you return.

Perform 6 to 8 reps.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dreisinger TE. Exercise in the management of chronic back painOchsner J. 2014;14(1):101-107.

  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Low back pain fact sheet.

  3. Chou R. Low back pain (chronic)BMJ Clin Evid. 2010;2010:1116.

  4. Rosario JL. Relief from back pain through postural adjustment: A controlled clinical trial of the immediate effects of muscular chains therapy (MCT)Int J Ther Massage Bodywork. 2014;7(3):2-6.

  5. Harvard Health Publishing. Daily moves to prevent low back pain.

  6. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Preventing back pain at work and at home.

  7. American Council on Exercise. What are some back pain do's and don'ts for exercise?

By Chris Freytag
Chris Freytag is an ACE-certified group fitness instructor, personal trainer, and health coach. She is also the founder of GetHealthyU.com.