Back pain is, well, a pain when it comes to working out. If you find yourself with a new or recurrent back injury, you’ll quickly find that back pain can put a damper on your regular exercise regime as well as your daily routine. However, that doesn’t mean you should stop working out all together. In fact, there are a number of exercises that will help you recover from back pain, strengthen weak muscles and increase your flexibility.
“The muscles in your back fuel a lot of your everyday movements. They are also responsible for supporting your spine. Your back plays an integral role in your posture,” personal trainer Nicolle Harwood-Nash tells SheKnows. “Having a range of good back exercises spread across your workout week, or even a concentrated back day every week, will ensure that you create a strong and mobile back that can support a healthy posture.”
According to Harwood-Nash keeping your back strong and mobile is a great way to reduce pain. Below are the best exercises to try with those who have back pain.
“This exercise requires only your body weight and is a safe starting point for women who want to start strengthening their back. The Superman works your whole back, especially your lower back,” says Harwood-Nash. A perfect beginner exercise, it’s effective in helping you develop good firing mechanics and the static strength and control needed for more advanced movements.
To perform this exercise correctly, start off by lying face down on your stomach with your arms extended above your head. From here, simultaneously lift your legs, arms, head, and chest off the ground as high as you can. Hold for a second in this position before returning to the starting position. Be mindful to not overextend through the lower back. Your range of motion should increase as your strength and mobility improve.
You can do this exercise in sets of three for 10 to 12 reps.
“Glute bridges are great for activating your posterior chain while working your core at the same time,” says Marie Urban, Regional Group Training Coordinator and CPT at Life Time. “However different than the superman the pressure is placed on your heels which really activates your glutes, hamstrings, and back while not constricting your spine.”
Lie with your back on the floor, knees bent with most of the weight placed in your heels. Press off your heels, squeeze your glutes and lift your hips up until your knees, hips, and shoulders make a straight line. Hold this for about three to five seconds and release your hips and glutes back down to the floor.
Repeat about 15 times.
‘Drawing in’ your Core
“The first exercise and muscle group I address when dealing with back pain is the core, specifically the transverse abdominis,” says personal trainer Josh Smith. “It functions as a sort of natural back brace to help the spine lock itself down and absorb and distribute forces from movement better.”
According to Smith a weak TA can cause loads of issues especially with the lower back as it’s the first part of the back that interacts with the ground and deals with forces from the structures moving up the back.
To strengthen this muscle Smith recommends the “drawing in maneuver”.
- Get down on your hands and knees
- Keep your back straight by having your chest lifted tall and your head neutral and looking at the floor
- Breathe out and fully empty your stomach of air
- Breathe in deep while pulling your belly button into your spine like you’re trying to put on a really tight pair of pants
- Hold the belly button in and squeeze while making sure to continue breathing during this movement.
Hold for at least 45 seconds, but work up to 60 minutes and even 2 minutes daily or every other day or as part of your warm up for your workouts.
“A staple among exercises for people with back pain, this move will train stability throughout the entire core and back, and since you need a lot of coordination it will also help motor control,” says personal trainer and nutritionist Jamie Hickey. “Since this will strengthen your nervous system to coordinate muscular movements the lasting result is further back protection.”
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 keep 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 once 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. Repeat 10 times on each side.
The Bat Hang
“Because my clients sit all day at work, their hip flexors get stuck ‘tight’ which compresses their back as a result,” says Romina Kostich, a NASM-certified personal trainer in NYC. “To counter it we warm up in positions that get their hip extensors (like hamstrings and glutes) to co-contract with their abdominals, which lengthens their back muscles and decompresses the spine.”
An example of this is an exercise Kostich calls the “bat hang” in which the client lays at the base of where the floor meets the wall, with their buttocks touching the wall and legs resting straight up against it. Climb your heels up a few inches until your low back is passively rounded off the floor and they feel a stretch. By nature of the position your hamstrings are contracting while their back muscles let go. “I’ll then have them fully exhale to move their ribs down, in and back–actions which the internal obliques and transverse abdominals are responsible for in a full exhalation,” says Kostich. “After a pause, I have them think about keeping their front ribs ‘closed’ while they silently inhale into their nose and this gets air to expand their upper/middle back for further decompression.”
Kostich has her clients use the move as a general warm up for training, or when they’re feeling back stiffness at home, for 2 sets of 3-5 full breath cycles.
Wide Grip Lat Pulldown
“The Wide Grip Lat Pulldown is a great exercise for building upper body strength,” says Harwood-Nash. “It is a weighted exercise, but offers the stability and support of a machine, and is, therefore, suitable for beginners.”
To do the Wide Grip PullDown, adjust the machine so your thighs fit comfortably under the supports. Hold the bar with a pronated grip, over shoulder width apart.
Exhale as you pull the bar down to just above your upper chest. Your elbows should be close to your sides and your shoulder blades should be squeezed together. Hold for a second or two and then return to starting position in a controlled, slow movement.
This exercise is best performed in higher reps of 12 to 15 over three or four sets and with a weight suitable to maintain good form throughout.
“Planking is another exercise that is great for strengthening your entire core (back and abdominals),” says Nash. “If you do this exercise correctly, and squeeze all the muscles tight, you’ll certainly start to strengthen your back and core which should provide some relief from the back pain.”
Lie on your stomach with your elbows placed under your shoulders. At the same time, lift your upper and lower body off the floor placing the weight in your elbows and toes (knees if you need assistance) Tuck your pelvis down towards the floor while squeeze your core, and keeping your back straight. Engage all the muscles in your body while keeping a neutral spine (look straight down) and hold as long as possible without losing form. Perform this exercise three times, ideally increasing your seconds of holding every time!
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