Nearly 8% of adults in the United States have persistent or chronic back pain, with millions more reporting that they experience it every now and then. Because our back is so essential to many of our most functional and common movements, including walking, running, and picking things up, back pain can feel quite debilitating. Are there movements you can do to alleviate back pain and strengthen your back so that the pain lessens in the short and long term?
There are many great exercises to help strengthen a bad back, including leg raises, farmer’s walks, deadlifts, wall sits, reverse flys, Superman, shoulder shrugs, bridges, back extensions, bird dogs, Hindu press ups, partial crunches, good mornings, hamstring stretches, planks, and many more.
In this article, we will look at some great exercises that will help make your back stronger and more injury-resistant. Many of these exercises will do one or both of the following:
Understanding Back Pain and How Exercise Can Help Correct It
Much of the back pain experienced by people of all ages is the result of long-term degradation of the muscles around your spine. A lot of it is the result of poor posture; frankly, I know that I’m just as guilty as anyone else of hunching over when I type or write, and posture like that is the reason so many people feel aches in their lower back.
Muscle imbalances created as a result of poor posture and the accompanying degradation only further compound back pain by making it more difficult to correct your posture and perform the movements that would strengthen those spine-adjacent muscles that so badly need development.
Many attempts at strengthening the spine and abdominal muscles come in the form of explosive workouts or sit-ups that (especially without proper warm-ups) can serve to make back pain worse by further wearing out our backs even more, without directly targeting the muscles that need work the most. Work done must target that muscle specifically, and it must allow for you to gradually increase the amount of work or range of motion you perform as you get better at the movement, The exercises you choose must complement each other in order to work every necessary muscle.
Many of the workouts listed either strengthen the erector spine (the muscle that helps you to bend your back backward and which works opposite to the rectus abdominis or sick pack muscle) or strengthen the multifidus, a collection of bilateral muscles located along the side of the spine. The erector spine comes into play whenever your rib cage moves, and the multifidus muscles are in charge of positioning individual vertebrae along your spine. Exercises like the Reverse Fly and the Deadlift will greatly strengthen these muscles.
Other workouts are meant to increase your core endurance. Because your core includes many important stabilizer muscles, strengthening your core will serve to reduce your risk of injury or bad form as you perform any number of movements throughout the day or in the gym. While you wouldn’t believe it considering the number of ab workouts that involve twisting, the purpose of your core is to prevent excessive flexion or rotation of the lower spine, not increase it. Exercises like the bird dog and lizard crawl will all help greatly towards this end.
Other workouts, such as the Hindu press-up, will help to increase the mobility in your thoracic (upper) spine, which will help you avoid twisting and lengthening your lumbar (lower) spine when it’s not needed. This is hugely beneficial for injury prevention.
1. Lying Lateral Leg Raises
Benefit: Lying Lateral Leg Raises, though mainly focusing on the muscles of the thighs and hips, have a secondary benefit for the back. By engaging the core for balance and working on the muscles that control hip movement, the exercise aids in spinal support and alignment of the pelvic region. This can lead to better overall back health, and improved posture, and may even help reduce lower back tension, making it a valuable addition to a well-rounded fitness routine.
- Position: Repose on one side with limbs elongated.
- Movement: Ascend the top limb as high as feasible, then lower it.
- Repetition: Accomplish 10-15 cycles on each side.
2. Farmer’s Walks
Benefit: Farmer’s walks, besides being an excellent grip workout, also help to improve your erector spinal stability. Making the movement unilateral (carrying a varying amount of weight on either side) can make the stability aspect of this exercise even more difficult (and thus even more beneficial). Loading weight onto the front of your body will help increase your spine’s ability to resist flexion, thus lessening the chance you pull your back while bending down to pick up your groceries or the like.
- Position: Grasp a weighty dumbbell in each palm with arms elongated.
- Movement: Ambulate forward, conserving an erect posture.
- Distance: Traverse a specified distance or duration.
Benefit: Strengthens the muscles in the lower back and legs, fostering a healthy back. The deadlift is perhaps the single greatest exercise for strengthening your back, core, and legs and providing the strength necessary for providing power properly through the use of the posterior chain, without having to resort to bad form, which ultimately will lead to injury no matter what you are doing.
- Stand with feet apart about shoulder distance or ever so slightly more narrow, holding weights in front. The bar should be above the middle of your foot.
- Lean over and position your shoulders over the bar. Your hands should be positioned just outside of your legs.
- Bend hips and knees (keep your butt above your knees though), then pull the weight off the floor beginning by pushing the ground down with your feet (your arms should stay straight throughout the whole movement). You should both visualize and feel the transfer of the weight first in your feet, then calves, then glutes, then hamstrings, and then finally your erector spine (lower back). This exercise includes a hip hinge movement: your back should be straight (or as straight as possible) the WHOLE TIME to avoid injury. Your hips are doing the bending here!
- It should be a continuous movement; after you begin the initial pull, continue pulling straight up while moving your hips up and in till they are in line with your feet.
- Stop once your back is straight: the weight should be resting on your quads.
- Lower the weight back down slowly in the reverse of the pulling motion you just completed.
- Repeat 8-12 times, keeping the back straight and core engaged.
- The video below explains the
4. Wall Sits
Benefit: Strengthens muscles in the core and back, contributing to improved posture. They can help you improve your squat form if you struggle to keep your back straight during squats. I used to have to do these during swim practice when we did dryland workouts and trust me, you’ll feel the burn if you do them for long enough.
- Lean against a wall, and slide down until your knees form a right angle.
- Sustain this stance for 30-60 seconds, keeping the back against the wall.
- Focus on alignment and core engagement.
5. Reverse Fly with Bands
Benefit: Builds strength in the shoulders and upper back, aiding in posture and back strain reduction. If you happen to have upper instead of lower back pain, these might be just the thing. They’ll loosen your shoulder blades once you’re done, not to mention make it easier to perform pulling or rowing movements in the gym or at home.
- Hold a band with both hands, arms in front, feet apart.
- Separate the band, squeezing the shoulder blades.
- Repeat 10-15 times, engaging the upper back and shoulders.
Benefit: Focuses on strengthening the lumbar region, promoting stability in the lower back. This is a great, low-impact exercise for those looking to begin enhancing their thoracic flexibility.
- Lie face down, limbs extended.
- Elevate arms, chest, and legs, engaging back and glutes.
- Repeat 10-15 times, focusing on controlled movement.
7. Shoulder Shrugs
Benefit: Focuses on the upper back’s trapezius muscles, improving shoulder stability and strength. If your upper back is bothering you, these will greatly loosen up your shoulders and increase your ability to carry heavy weight in any form, similar to how farmer’s walks also improve your shoulder strength.
- Stand with feet apart, dumbbells at sides.
- Elevate shoulders towards ears, then lower.
- Repeat 10-15 times, focusing on the trapezius muscles.
8. Bridges/Half Bridges
Benefit: Bridges may be worth trying once you have increased the stability and flexibility of your spine and you are no longer in an injured state. It aids both shoulder and thoracic (spine) mobility. This exercise is best performed at the end of a workout because it is a static stretch, meaning your body will need a proper warm-up before doing this movement. Once you get really good at half-bridge and then full bridge, it might be worth trying out the bridge reach-over, which will further help to increase thoracic spine flexibility.
- Position: Recline supine with knees arched and feet anchored on the floor.
- Movement: Ascend your pelvis towards the zenith, clenching the gluteal muscles at the apex.
- Repetition: Accomplish 10-15 cycles.
If you can’t perform a full bridge, then do a half-bridge by placing your arms underneath your back to prop yourself up, while still keeping your knees arched and pelvis up while bracing your core muscles.
9. Back Extension Machine
Benefit: Specifically strengthens the muscles in the lower spine, enhancing back support. Back extensions are incredible prehab or rehab exercises that when down slowly and with good form, will both strengthen and increase the mobility of your spine.
- Sit in the machine, pads against the lower back.
- Push against the pads, extending the back.
- Repeat 10-15 times, focusing on lower back muscles.
10. Bird Dogs
Benefit: This exercise is excellent because it forces you to stabilize yourself with your spine, which will in turn strengthen your multifidus muscles. It is also a low-impact exercise, meaning that it can be held and performed for long periods of time. The longer you hold this pose, the more control you will be able to exert over your spinal muscles, which will help greatly when it comes to preventing further injury.
Bird Dogs fortify the core, lumbar region, and deltoids.
- Position: Commence on palms and knees.
- Movement: Extend one palm and the opposing limb simultaneously.
- Repetition: Accomplish 10-15 cycles on each side.
11. Hindu Press Up/Dive bomber
Benefit: The Hindu press-up/dive bomber is a great movement for enabling greater flexibility and strength in the core and back. Do note that it does place some compressive force on the spine, which makes this not so great if you are just starting to work out your back: it’s best to save this one for after you have built up some strength in your back. Still, it is a hugely beneficial exercise that will serve to greatly future-proof your back against further injury, especially if you are an athlete who is going to need all the strength and mobility they can get out of their back.
- Position: Initiate in a downward canine position with hips elevated.
- Movement: Descend your physique in a sweeping motion, culminating in an upward canine position.
- Repetition: Accomplish 10-15 cycles.
Once you get really good at this movement, you can progress into a Hindu/dive bomber pushup.
12. Partial Crunches
Benefit: Enhances core stability, providing better support for the spine and back.
- Recline with bent knees, feet on the ground, hands behind the head, or on the chest.
- Activate the core, elevate the head and shoulders, and then descend slowly.
- Repeat 10-15 times, focusing on abdominal engagement.
13. Good Mornings
Benefit: Concentrates on the back and hamstring muscles, increasing back strength and suppleness. These are great as a complementary exercise to the deadlift.
- Stand with feet apart, barbell on shoulders.
- Flex at the hips, then rise, engaging hamstrings and back.
- Repeat 10-15 times, maintaining control and alignment.
14. Lizard Crawls
Benefit: Lizard crawls force you to stabilize your back throughout a relatively complicated and complex movement pattern, which helps strengthen your spinal muscles against both rotation and flexion. Not only that, but you will also become more mindful of your spine, increasing your body awareness or proprioception in this most critical area of your body. It can help to move unpredictably, move slowly, and mix up the movement once you master the basics if you want to boost these specific benefits.
1. Initiating the Position:
- Start in a low plank stance with your toes and forearms touching the ground.
- Stretch one arm ahead and the corresponding leg to the side, keeping them near the floor.
- Your entire body should be almost grazing the floor, with your core muscles activated.
2. The Crawling Action:
- Progress the stretched arm and leg ahead, while simultaneously drawing the other knee towards the elbow of the grounded arm.
- Your motion should be fluid and continuous, mimicking the movement of a lizard.
- Maintain your hips at a low elevation and balance yourself, executing the movements with control.
3. Sustaining the Motion:
- Persist in crawling ahead, switching arms and legs in a synchronized manner.
- Concentrate on preserving a controlled and seamless motion, with your body remaining near the ground.
4. Core Activation:
- Keep your core muscles taut throughout the exercise to provide stability to your body.
- This movement demands substantial core endurance, so emphasize keeping the abdominal region firm.
5. Controlled Breathing:
- Align your breathing with the movement, inhaling during extension and exhaling as you draw the limbs inward.
- Proper breathing aids in maintaining rhythm and steadiness.
6. Repetitions and Length:
- The Lizard Crawl can be performed for a designated number of cycles or over a particular length.
- Initiate with a minimal distance or a few cycles and incrementally enhance as you grow more adept.
- The Lizard Crawl is a sophisticated exercise necessitating agility, suppleness, and synchronization.
- It might be advantageous to train with a fitness expert or refer to tutorial videos to confirm accurate technique.
- Adequately warm up before undertaking this exercise and think about integrating it into a regimen that includes diverse mobility and strength drills.
The Lizard Crawl is an exceptional full-body exercise that’s also an engaging way to test your movement capabilities. It can be adapted to various fitness stages, and regular practice can lead to enhancements in robustness, flexibility, and synchronization.
Benefit: Engages the full core, fortifying the muscles that underpin the spine.
- Rest on forearms and toes, body in a straight line.
- Sustain for 30 seconds to 1 minute, focusing on stability.
- Keep hips level and core muscles engaged.