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The lower back supports the entire upper body. Unfortunately, lower back pain affects millions of men each year, causing anything from mild to severe activity restrictions. In fact, lower back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability.1 Nearly 80% of percent of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives.
The large majority of lower back problems stem from musculoskeletal problems.2 Therefore, the best approach to preventing back pain is keeping your lower back and core both strong and flexible. This goal can be accomplished through a combination of lower back exercises and stretches.
10 Exercises for Lower Back Pain
The following 10 lower back exercises include three resistance exercises, three core exercises and four stretches. Select any exercise for a full demonstration video. Complete videos accessible on desktop, tablet, and mobile device can be found at EMG’s Exercise Videos Library.
Lower back exercises are critical for strengthening the lumbar muscles. Weak lumbar muscles (muscles of the lower back) do not provide enough support to your spinal column, which often causes back pain. The following lower back exercises strengthen the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support the spinal column. All of the following exercises immobilize the pelvis. This immobilization prevents hip extension and isolates the lower back muscles during movement.
Resistance Exercises for Lower Back Pain
The machine hyperextension is one of the ideal lower back exercises to strengthen the lower back for those who can not do deadlifts or hyperextensions. The set arc of the machine prevents the user from injury. Most machines also have a belt that keeps the user in place, allowing better isolation of the low back. This exercise should be performed in a controlled motion.
Basic Trunk Extensions
Like the machine hyperextension, the hyperextension works to build strength in the lower back. It is one of the good lower back exercises for those who are just beginning to train the low back or who have suffered a low back injury in the past. When performing this exercise, it is important to know the limits of your flexibility. This exercise should be performed in a controlled manner. Jerking or “exploding” upward could lead to injury.
The single leg extension is one of the simplest exercises for lower back pain that can easily be performed at home. The single leg extension works the low back forcing the user to balance. After he has assumed a stance on all four, the user should extend one leg behind him. At the same time, he should extend the opposite arm. Both limbs should be extended straight out. After holding at the top of the motion, the exercise is repeated to with the opposite arm and leg.
Core Exercises for Lower Back Pain
Weak abdominal muscles allow the abdomen to sag forward. This shifts more weight onto the lower back because it is forced to hold the mass in front of it. Strengthening the abdominal muscles keeps stress off of the lower back. The best core exercises for lower back pain maximize the activation of the abdominal muscles but minimize the compression of the lower back (lumbar vertebrae). The following core based lower back exercises strengthen the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support the spinal column.
Abdominal Curls (Bent Knees)
The abdominal curl is one of the simplest core based lower back exercises. The abdominal curl maximizes the activation of the abdominal muscles but minimizes compression of the lower back (lumbar vertebrae). Minimizing compression prevents undo stress on the lower back and minimizes risk of injury. With your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, simply lift your upper torso in a controlled motion toward your knees.
Abdominal Curls (Cross Knees)
The abdominal curl is one of the simplest core based lower back exercises. It maximizes the activation of the abdominal muscles but minimizes compression of the lower back (lumbar vertebrae). Minimizing compression prevents undo stress on the lower back and minimizes risk of injury. With your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, simply lift your upper torso in a controlled motion toward your knees with a bend.
The side bridge is one of the good core based lower back exercises to strengthen the oblique muscles. When performing this exercise, it is important to keep the muscle tense throughout the exercise. Bridges work the stabilizer muscles, so they can be a more complete core workout. Shaking is normal when performing a side bridge.
Stretching Exercises for Lower Back Pain
It is important to stretch the lower back muscles, ligaments, and tendons before and after exercise in order to prevent injury. The following stretching exercises for lower back pain are great even if you already suffer from back pain. These stretches can also be used for warming-up prior to other lower back exercises or resistance training.
Keep the following in mind:
- Stretching based lower back exercises should be pain free; do not force the body into difficult positions.
- Move into these stretches slowly and avoid bouncing, which may actually tear muscles.
- Hold stretches long enough (20-30 seconds) to allow muscles or joints to become loose.
The pelvic tilt is one of the simplest and most subtle stretching based lower back exercises. It increases strength and mobility in the lower back. While laying flat on the ground with his knees bent and feet on the floor, the user simply tilts his pelvis backwards, keeping the rest of the body in place. When first performing the pelvic tilt, the user may have a tendency to push the whole hip area off the floor. This is incorrect. The movement should be very isolated, almost to the degree that an observer might not be able to identify the motion. The user should be careful not to stretch too far or stretch too hard. This can do more harm than good.
The knee to chest stretch is one of the simplest stretching based lower back exercises. It works to strengthen and improve flexibility in the low back. While lying on the floor lift your knees up toward your chest. Then, grasp the backside of your legs right above your the knees and gently pull toward the chest. When performing the stretch, be sure to maintain balance. Your pelvis should lift slightly off the floor. The user should be careful not to stretch too far or stretch too hard. This can do more harm than good.
The trunk flex is another on the great lower back exercises for relieving pain and increasing flexibility. When performing this exercise, the user simply leans back on his own feet from the starting position. Different users will have different low back health and different levels of flexibility. Therefore, when performing the trunk flex, only lean as far back on the calves as is comfortable. The user should be careful not to stretch too far or stretch too hard. This can do more harm than good.
Cat and Camel
The cat and camel is one of the best dynamic stretching based lower back exercises. The “cat” part involves the users lowering his low back and flexing the pelvis. For the “camel,” the user then arches the low back and tilts the pelvis the other way. These motions work in unison to promote flexibility and increase the range of motion in the low back. The user should be careful not to stretch too far or stretch too hard. This can do more harm than good.
When Should I See a Doctor for Pain?
You should see a doctor if you have the following: 1) numbness or tingling, 2) severe pain that does not improve with rest, 3) pain after a fall or an injury, 4) pain plus any of these problems: trouble urinating, weakness, numbness in your legs, fever, and/or weight loss when not on a diet.
10 Exercises for Lower Back Pain
External Resources: National Health Services UK: Lower Back Pain Exercises
Updated: April 4th, 2015
2. Henschke N, Maher CG, Refshauge KM, et al. Prevalence of and screening for serious spinal pathology in patients presenting to primary care settings with acute low back pain. Arthritis Rheum. Oct 2009; 60 (10): 3072-3080.