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8 Exercises to Do (& 3 to Avoid) to Relieve Lower Back Pain

November 14, 2017
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Thirty-one million Americans experience lower back pain at some point in their life. In fact, low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the Global Burden of Disease 2010. However, all of these cases of low back pain can be managed by staying active. The key to preventing low back pain is to know what exercises to avoid and what exercises will help relieve your low back pain symptoms.

A heating pad or warm baths may provide temporary pain relief of your lower back pain, and at times you may feel like resting, but moving is actually good for your back.

Some exercises for lower back pain can strengthen your back, stomach and leg muscles. They help support your spine, relieving your back pain symptoms. Then, there are those that seem helpful but can actually aggravate your back pain issues. Those are the ones you want to steer clear of.

3 Exercises to Avoid

Depending on the cause and intensity of your low back pain, these exercises may not be recommended and can be harmful to you and your recovery. Before starting an exercise regimen, always talk to your doctor or specialist first.

Toe Touches

Standing toe touches put greater stress on the discs and ligaments in your spine. They can also overstretch lower back muscles and hamstrings.

Sit-ups

Although you might think sit-ups can strengthen your core — a strong core does make a strong back — most people rely on the hips when doing sit-ups. This causes more muscle strain. Sit-ups also place a lot of pressure on the discs in your spine and do not support neutral spine loading.

Every time you come back up when doing sit-ups or crunches, you are squeezing the intervertebral disc, a jelly-like "shock absorber" between your vertebrae. This is called trunk flexion, which makes that jelly-like substance in between your vertebrae (the nucleus pulposus) push the disc backward.

Man performing crunches, these can be dangerous if done too often.

If you continuously do this enough times, it can eventually weaken the back of the discs, putting you at a higher risk for disc herniation while exacerbating your low back pain. Needless to say, skip the sit-ups.

Leg Lifts

Leg lifts are sometimes suggested as an exercise to strengthen your core or abdominal muscles. Exercising to restore strength to your lower back can be helpful in relieving pain, yet, lifting both legs together while lying on your back is very demanding on your core. If you feel sluggish or weak, this exercise can make your back pain worse.

Instead, try lying on your back with one leg straight and the other leg bent at the knee. Keeping your lower back flat on the floor, slowly lift the straight leg up about six inches and hold briefly. After, lower that leg slowly. Repeat 10 times, then switch legs.

8 Exercises to Do

Depending on the cause and intensity of your low back pain, these exercises are generally recommended to help relieve your lower back pain symptoms. Before starting an exercise regimen, always talk to your doctor or specialist first.

Hamstring Stretches

You want to lie on your back and bend one knee. Loop a towel under the ball of your foot and straighten your knee while slowly pulling back on the towel. You should feel a gentle stretch down the back of your leg. Hold this pose for at least 15 to 30 seconds, then, do this 2 to 4 times for each leg.

Partial Crunches

You now know that some exercises can aggravate back pain and should be avoided when you have acute low back pain, however, partial crunches can help strengthen your back and stomach muscles, if done correctly.

Start by lying with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Cross your arms over your chest or put your hands behind your neck (as seen below). As you do this, you want to tighten your stomach muscles and raise your shoulders off the floor. Breathe out as you raise your shoulders.

Woman performing partial crunches. These are ideal for those with compromised backs.

Remember not to lead with your elbows or use your arms to pull your neck off the floor. Instead, hold for a second, then slowly lower your back down. Repeat this 8 to 12 times. Proper form prevents excessive stress on your low back so ensure that your feet, tailbone and lower back remain in contact with the mat at all times.

Wall Sits

You want to stand 10 to 12 inches from the wall, then lean back until your back is flat against the wall. Slowly slide down until your knees are slightly bent, pressing your lower back into the wall. Hold for a count of 10, then carefully slide back up the wall. Repeat 8 to 12 times.

Press-up Back Extensions

Lie on your stomach with your hands under your shoulders. Push with your hands so your shoulders begin to lift off the floor. If it's comfortable for you, put your elbows on the floor directly under your shoulders and hold this position for several seconds. Repeat 4 times.

Bird Dog

Start on your hands and knees, and tighten your stomach muscles. Lift and extend one leg behind you. Keep your hips level. Hold for 5 seconds, and then switch to the other leg. Repeat 8 to 12 times for each leg, and try to lengthen the time you hold each lift.

The bird dog yoga pose being performed can help stabilize the lower back.
Try lifting and extending your opposite arm for each repetition. This exercise is a great way to learn how to stabilize the low back during movement of the arms and legs. While doing this exercise, don't let the lower back muscles sag. Only raise the limbs to heights where the low back position can be maintained.

Knee to Chest

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Bring one knee to your chest, keeping the other foot flat on the floor. Keep your lower back pressed to the floor as well, and hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Then, lower your knee and repeat with the other leg. You want to do this 2 to 4 times for each leg.

Pelvic Tilts

Start by lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Tighten your stomach by contracting it as though you were preparing for a punch. You’ll feel your back pressing into the floor, with your hips and pelvis rocking back. Hold this for 10 seconds while breathing in and out smoothly. Repeat 8 to 12 times.

Bridging

Lie on your back with your knees bent with just your heels on the floor. Push your heels into the floor, squeeze your buttocks, and lift your hips off the floor until your shoulders, hips, and knees are in a straight line. Hold about 6 seconds, and then slowly lower your hips to the floor. Then, rest for 10 seconds. Repeat 8 to 12 times. 

Woman performing bridging, which is an effective exercise for those who suffer from back pain.

Doing this position, avoid arching your lower back as your hips move upward. In addition, you want to avoid overarching by tightening your abdominal muscles prior and throughout the lift. It's all about getting up and moving — the speed doesn't matter.



For the thirty-one million Americans who experience lower back pain, there are ways you can relieve and manage your daily discomfort. Opt for the eight exercises that are safe and effective while avoiding the three other exercises.

Don't force yourself to do something that you think will hurt your recovery. Start small and go from there. Don't dwell on what you can't do either —think about how good you and your lower back will feel when you're done exercising. 

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