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5 easy exercises for back pain

back pain

Back pain is a common problem in adults. Four out of ten adults will encounter low back pain sometime in  their life1, with an increasing risk as we age. A lot of seated and standing jobs also play a big role in causing pain in the (lower) back. Since changing jobs might be too drastic to prevent or cure the back pain, you might wonder what else you can do to relieve the pain.

Research shows that core stabilizing exercises could reduce pain and improve balance, while reducing both functional disability and fear of movement in people with low back pain². Learn about this fear of movement in this blog post. Different guidelines on treatment of lower back pain suggest to stay active as tolerated and doing easy-to-perform at-home and/or supervised exercises3,4,5.

Before you start: make sure you have clearance from your physician to do physical exercise. When doing these exercises, do so with caution. With any new pains or worsening of existing pain, stop immediately and seek medical advice from your physician.

Here are 5 easy exercises for back pain you can do at home. This way you may improve or prevent acute or chronic (low) back pain:

Exercise 1 for back pain: bird-dog

bird-dog
Photo 1
bird dog
Photo 2
bird dog
Photo 3

This exercise is a basic exercise that stabilizes the core and improves your balance.

How to perform the exercise:

Start in a dog plank position, your knees slightly apart and your hands firmly on the ground (or a mat for more comfort) about shoulder-width apart (see photo 1).

Squeeze your abdominal muscles and raise the left arm forward while at the same time extending your right leg back and up until both arm and leg form a straight line (see photo 2).

Keep your abs engaged and your back flat throughout the exercise. Hold for 2-3 seconds, then return your hand and knee to the floor and repeat on the other side (see photo 3).

Repeat this exercise for 30 seconds.

Modifications:
→ If you have trouble holding your balance, build up the exercise as follows

  • Lift only the arms (not the legs), alternating for 30s
  • Next: lift only the legs, alternating for 30s
  • Lastly: lift one arm and stretch the opposite leg (without lifting the leg), alternating sides for 30s

Exercise 2 for back pain: Plank

high plank
Photo 1
plank
Photo 2

The popular plank exercise targets the abdominal muscles, which are an important part of stabilizing the spine.

How to do the exercise:

Lie on your tummy on a mat or floor. Position your hands underneath your shoulders. Put your feet together and your head relaxed and looking at the floor.

Push up through the hands, engage (contract) your quadriceps and glutes (leg muscles) and your abdominal muscles. Form a straight line from your head, to your spine and your legs (see photo 1).

Inhale and exhale (breathe in and out) while keeping your body in a straight line. Hold this position for 20-30s.

Important tips:

  • Don’t bend your back or create a ‘tent’ instead of straight line → focus on contracting your abs and glutes
  • Avoid sinking (lowering) your hips or arching your back → if your hips keep lowering, try separating your feet slightly more and focus on contracting your abs
  • Don’t tilt your head up nor let it hang down → keep a straight line, look to the floor right above your hands
  • Make sure to really push through your shoulders

Modifications:
→ Besides doing a ‘high’ plank, you can also do a low plank to reach the same effects on the core.
To do this exercise, you keep your underarms on the floor instead of pushing up through the hands. Make sure your shoulders are right above the elbows (not in front or behind) and keep a straight line from head to toes (see photo 2).

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Exercise 3 for back pain: Side plank

side plank
Photo 1
side plank
Photo 2
adjusted side plank
Photo 3

This third exercise for back pain is a great exercise to strengthen your oblique abdominal muscles.

How to do the exercise:

Lie on your right side with both legs straight. Place your right elbow under your shoulder, your forearm on the floor and make sure your head is in line with your spine and your left hand along the body (see photo 1).

Exhale and gently contract your abdominal core muscles to tighten your spine. On the next inhale, lift your hips and knees off the ground, still contracting your abs. Maintain a straight line without any bending (see photo 2).

Hold the position for 20-30s, after that return to the starting position and change sides.

Modifications:
→ If this seems too hard to balance or hurts your knees, do a ‘knee side plank’ instead. To do this, start in the same position, but bend your legs to the back so your knees are 90°. Lift your hips, but leave your knees on the floor (see photo 3).

Exercise 4 for back pain: glute (or hip) bridge

glute bridge
Photo 1
glute bridge
Photo 2

Not just your abs, but also your glutes (butt muscles) are part of your core muscles and need to be stabilized and strengthened to help with back pain. This is an easy but effective exercise to reach just that.

How to do the exercise:

Lie on your back (= supine) on a mat, if you have one, or on the floor. Place your hands to your sides and bend your knees. Your feet should be slightly apart and flat on the floor (see photo 1).

Tighten (contract) your abdominal and gluteal (butt) muscles by pushing your lower back into the floor. Maintain these two muscle contractions throughout the exercise.
Exhale (breathe out) gently while contracting your abs and raise your hips off the floor by squeezing your glutes (see photo 2).

Try and create a straight line from shoulders to knees and relax the head on the floor. Hold this position for 20-30s.

Important tips:

  • Make sure your knees don’t go over your toes, your knee joint should be right above your ankle when lifting up the hips

Modifications:
→ If holding for 30s is too long, go up and down during 30s instead. Make sure you keep your abs tight both when you’re up and down with your hips.
→ Do you want a bigger challenge? Do this exercise with just one leg on the floor, the other one in the air. You can either hold the hips up or go up and down with the hips. After 30s, switch to the other leg and repeat.

Exercise 5 for back pain: Supine alternate knee tuck

supine knee tuck
alternate supine knee tuck

The last exercise for back pain is working mostly on your abs, while keeping your hips flexible.

How to do the exercise:

Lie on your back (= supine) on the floor or a mat if you have one. Place a pillow or towel under your lower back, this will assist in stabilizing your abdominal muscles and protect your lower back.
Place your arms to your sides and your legs straight.

First, breathe out slowly and contract your abs. Next, lift your head and legs off the floor. Finally, bend one of your knees slowly towards your chest, while keeping the other leg straight (see photos).

Return the knee back next to the straight leg and repeat with the opposite leg.
Repeat for as many reps (20-40) or for 30s and maintain contraction of your abs throughout.

Important tips:

  • Make sure your lower back stays on the floor (don’t overarch in the lower back)
  • Don’t rush bending your knees, take your time, feel the muscles working
  • Keep your head in a straight line, don’t lift it too high, which could lead to a neck injury

Modifications:
-> If you have neck problems, don’t lift your head up, but keep it on the floor.

Scared you won't remember these exercises?

Get our FREE back pain guide so you can always look back at these exercises and learn more.

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You can do more to help overcome back pain

Doing these 5 exercises for back pain on a daily basis will improve your core muscles, giving you more stability, balance, and strength, while reducing or preventing back pain. To get the best results, combine these exercises with other lifestyle changes like going for a walk, avoiding prolonged periods of sitting or standing in one place, or find other activities you might enjoy that keeps your back strong and flexible (eg: yoga, swimming, dancing, …). You can also read about lifestyle causes of back pain here.

Know that the info provided in this post doesn’t replace any professional medical advice given by your health care worker or replace a personal consultation with a personal trainer.

Have any more questions? Send me a message
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Bibliography

  1. Manchikanti L, Singh V, Falco FJ, Benyamin RM, Hirsch JA. Epidemiology of low back pain in adults. Neuromodulation. 2014 Oct;17 Suppl 2:3-10. doi: 10.1111/ner.12018.
  2. Hlaing SS, Puntumetakul R, Khine EE, Boucaut R. Effects of core stabilization exercise and strengthening exercise on proprioception, balance, muscle thickness and pain related outcomes in patients with subacute nonspecific low back pain: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Musculoskeletal disorders, 2021; 22:998. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-021-04858-6.
  3. Wong JJ, Côté P, Sutton DA, Randhawa K, Yu H, Varatharajan S, Goldgrub R, Nordin M, Gross DP, Shearer HM, Carroll LJ, Stern PJ, Ameis A, Southerst D, Mior S, Stupar M, Varatharajan T, Taylor-Vaisey A. Clinical practice guidelines for the noninvasive management of low back pain: A systematic review by the Ontario Protocol for Traffic Injury Management (OPTIMa) Collaboration. European Journal of Pain, 2017; 21:201-216.
  4. Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, McLean RM, Forciea MA. Noninvasive treatment for acute, subacute, and chronic low back pain: a clinical practice guideline from the American college of physicians. Ann Intern Med, 2017; 166:524-530. doi:10.7326/M16-2367.
  5. Stochkendahl MJ, Kjaer P, Hartvigsen J, Kongsted A, Aaboe J, Andersen M, Andersen M, Fournier G, Hojgaard B, Jensen MB, Jensen LD, Karbo T, Kirkeskov L, Melbye M, Morsel-Carlsen L, Nordsteen J, Palsson TS, Rasti Z, Silbye PF, Steiness MZ, Tarp S, Vaagholt M. National clinical Guidelines for non-surgical treatment of patients with recent onset low back pain or lumbar radiculopathy. Eur Spine J, 2018; 27:60-75. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00586-017-5099-2.

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