If you’re battling back pain, your first instinct probably isn’t to hit the gym. But there’s still good reason to get moving.
According to a 2018 American Journal of Epidemiology review of 16 prior studies, people who regularly exercise are 33 percent less likely to develop lower back pain. Plus, a 2017 Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences study suggests that strengthening the core is an effective way to reduce chronic back problems.
In the 2017 study, 120 people with chronic lower back pain performed either core-strengthening exercises or a routine of traditional physical therapy exercises three times per week. After six weeks, those who performed core-strengthening exercises reported significantly greater reductions in pain compared to those who didn’t work their core muscles.
“I’m willing to bet that in almost every case of back pain, even in patients with osteoarthritis, muscular imbalances play a role,” says physical therapist Sean Kinsman, content development lead for Trainer Rx, a physical therapy training app. When the muscles that surround and help stabilize the spine aren’t strong enough to properly function, other structures have to pick up the slack, he explains. That means the back’s bones, ligaments, tendons and cartilaginous structures like the spinal discs can experience excessive stress, he says.
Meanwhile, tight muscles in the front of the hips and chest – both common side effects of days spent sitting over a computer – can play tug of war with back muscles, causing further aches and pains, says certified trainer Jason Pak, co-owner of Achieve Fitness in Somerville, Massachusetts.
According to experts, shoring up these imbalances is completely possible and can help reduce – and even prevent – back pain. “By addressing core stability as well as hip and chest tightness, you’re really targeting the issue from both ends,” Pak says. Kinsman adds that this will help take the pressure off overstressed muscles, tissues and even bony structures to help ward off pain.
The following six exercises will help you do exactly that, strengthening the muscles of the core and back while also improving mobility in the hips and chest. To introduce them into your routine, start slow. “It’s OK if you can’t perform many repetitions or move through a full range of motion,” Kinsman says. “Do what you can without breaking form or experiencing pain.” That may mean breaking up exercises throughout the day into mini-workouts, rather than performing them altogether at once. Over time, work up to perform each exercise at least three to five times per week. “If you have chronic issues, you’ll get the best benefit out of performing them every day,” he says.
A staple exercise for back health, the bird dog exercise trains stability throughout the entire core and back, Kinsman says. Plus, because it involves plenty of coordination, it helps improve motor control, the ability of the nervous system to coordinate muscular movements. The end result: further back protection.
Instructions: Get on the floor on your hands and knees, with your hands placed directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Look down at the floor, just in front of your hands, to keep your neck in line with your back. Brace your core to maintain a flat tabletop position. This is the starting position; from here, extend one arm and the opposite leg up and away from your body. Stop extending your arm and leg when they are parallel to the floor, your form falters or you feel any discomfort. Pause, then slowly lower to return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side.
Similar to a reverse bird dog exercise, this move teaches the core muscles, including the muscles in the back, to stabilize the spine while the arms and legs are moving. When performing this exercise, it’s important to not let your lower back arch. “This takes your lower back out of the neutral position that we’d like and also places the hips and upper back in a flexed position,” Pak says. “So, by performing exercises with an arched lower back, it could actually worsen the situation rather than helping it.”
Instructions: Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs in the air, and your knees bent and directly above your hips. Contract your core to lightly press your lower back into the floor and get into the starting position. From there, lower one leg down until your heel almost touches the floor, while also lowering your opposite arm toward the floor behind the top of your head. Pause, then squeeze your core to raise your arm and opposite leg back to start. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
Low Side Plank
This stationary exercise has more moving parts than meets the eye, and trains the abdominal muscles, oblique muscles (at the side of the torso) and the paraspinal muscles, which run alongside the spinal column, to work together, Kinsman says. This increases their ability to properly stabilize and reduce stress on the spine.
Instructions: Lie down on the floor on one side, and prop your torso up on one forearm so that your elbow is directly below your shoulder. Bend your knees and stack them on top of each other and in line with your shoulders. This is the starting position. From there, squeeze your core to raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from your head to your knees. Keep your muscles contracted and as tight as possible, and hold this position for five seconds, then lower your hips to reset. Repeat these short movements, making sure not to let your hips rotate or sag. Then, switch to the opposite side.
Seated 90/90 Hip Switches
“When your hips are stiff, your lower back has to compensate and make up for that lack of mobility by being more mobile,” Pak says. As a result, the spine tends to curve and an excessive dip in the lower back begins to form, Kinsman adds. This dynamic exercise helps to relax and improve mobility in the hips.
Instructions: Sit on the floor with your knees bent and heels on the floor in front of you, almost twice shoulder-width apart. Clasp your hands in front of your chest, keeping a tall torso to get into the starting position. From there, rotate your body to the right, allowing the outside of your right thigh and the inside of your left thigh to fall toward the floor. Your chest should point directly over the right knee. Pause, then reverse the movement in the opposite direction so that you’re performing the rep over your left knee.
Lying Chest Opener
A tight chest pulls the shoulders forward to make the upper back feel tight and immobile. “A person with a stiff upper back that is rounded forward will typically extend through their lower back when looking up or trying to raise their arms up overhead,” Pak says. By relaxing the chest muscles, the exercise helps improve back function and alleviate pain.
Instructions: Lie flat on a bench, with your knees bent and your feet on top of the bench. Make sure your back is flat against the bench. This is the starting position. From there, with your palms facing up, let your arms fall straight out to both sides. Do not force them toward the floor; just let them hang in a comfortable position. You should feel a gentle stretch through your chest. Hold for about 30 seconds or as long as you feel comfortable.
This exercise strengthens the muscles of the upper back to help reverse a hunched-over position, improve posture and reduce back pain, Pak says.
Instructions: Stand tall, and grab a light resistance band with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Hold the band just in front of your chest with your hands at shoulder height and your elbows pointed toward the floor. This is the starting position. From there, as you keep your torso tall and not let your ribs flare away from your body, slowly pull the band apart so that your arms form a “W” shape. Hold for about five seconds, then slowly return to the starting position and repeat.