Exercises to Beat Your Back Pain

Did you know that aside from coughs and respiratory infections, back pain is the most common reason for seeing a doctor in the United States? About 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their life, and back pain is the leading cause of job-related disability worldwide. Yet surgery is rarely needed to treat back pain. So, what’s the answer? Why is it such a problem and, more importantly, how can you prevent it from becoming a problem for you? This article will help answer some of those questions as well as give you some of the best exercises to beat back pain.

What Causes Back Pain?

Back pain comes in two forms: acute and chronic. Acute pain arises when you injure yourself from a fall, a sports injury, or perhaps improper heavy lifting. It occurs suddenly and you 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.

Chronic pain, on the other hand, creeps up over time. Interestingly, it generally comes from one of two extremes: too much or not enough activity. How can this be?

  1. Too Much of an Activity: For the active person, chronic back pain can come from 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. There are endless things that cause wear and tear on the back.
  2. 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 motions and are injured more easily at 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.

What's the Solution?

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

Stand Properly: Pull your low abs in, tuck your pelvis and, if possible, place one foot on a stool or ledge. Take frequent breaks to stretch or walk if you can.

Sit Properly: Try to get a chair with good back support. Roll up a towel or bring 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.

The Exercise Solution

That being said, the best medicine for dealing with back pain is (drum roll please)…. EXERCISE! And before you jump to the conclusion that the fitness professional is turning to exercise yet again, there are just a few other professionals who would agree, namely Harvard Medical School and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.  These organizations list exercise as their number one solution for low back pain prevention. In addition, the American Council on Exercise recommends specific dos and don'ts for exercising with low back pain. Yes, the recommendations for exercise seem to be overwhelming when it comes to dealing with back pain. However, the type of exercise you perform is going to make a difference and when it comes to exercising to relieve back pain there are two important goals:

  1. Stretching the back and legs
  2. Strengthening the entire core

Below are a few of my favorite exercises Try to practice them on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to help prevent or lessen the pain in that aching back.

Full Body Roll-Up

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.

A) Lie flat on your back with your arms extended overhead.

B) Inhale arms to the sky, exhale, and slowly roll up into a “C” curve, reaching for your toes. (Think about threading your belly button to your spine, and activate your transverse abdominus.)

C) Inhale and start to slowly go back in a C curve.

D) 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 6-8 roll-ups.

Glute Bridge

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.

A) Lie on back with bent knees hip distance apart, and feet flat on mat stacked under the knees.

B) Engage the core and squeeze your glutes as you lift your hips to a bridge. Hold, squeezing tight, and return to mat with control.

Repeat 6-8 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.

A) Begin on your hands and knees with hands directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips.

B) 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.

C) Draw your naval up to your spine and breathe gently as you hold the stretch.

Perform 6-8 reps.

Bird Dog

Bird Dog

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The Bird Dog teaches the body to use core stability, strengthens the abs and in turn, the low back. It also lengthens the spinal column and improves posture.

A) Kneel on the mat on all fours. Reach one arm long, draw in the abdominals, and extend the opposite leg long behind you.

B) Repeat on the other side.

Perform 6-8 per side. Move slow and steady, holding ​the arm and leg out momentarily before switching.

Forearm Side Plank

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.

A) 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.​

B) Lift your body into a side plank position, keeping your lower knee on the floor and your abdominals engaged. Try to let your hips rise or drop.

Downward Dog

Downward dog

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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

A) Begin in a kneeling position on your mat with hands directly under shoulders, fingers spread wide.

B) 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.

C) Press through your hands moving your chest gently toward your thighs and your heels gently toward the floor.

D) 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 your core muscles and teaches lengthening and better posture.

A) Begin lying on the floor with your forearms flat on the floor, making sure that your elbows are aligned directly under your shoulders.

B) 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 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.

A) 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.​

B) 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.

C) Inhale and return back down to the mat slowly getting longer through the spine as you return.

Perform 6-8 reps.

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

  3. 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.

  4. Harvard Health Publishing. Daily moves to prevent low back pain. 2013.

  5. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Preventing Back Pain at Work and at Home. Updated February 2017.

  6. American Council on Exercise. What are some back pain do's and don'ts for exercise? 2011.