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5 Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain is one of the most common complaints we see in physical therapy. Since the back plays such a major role in almost all movement, even a mild case of back pain can be debilitating. Although major cases of back pain should be discussed with your physical therapist, we’ve gathered some exercises to help you deal with mild back pain, or at least help you strengthen your core back muscles.

1. Aerobic Exercise

A primary reason that people experience back pain is simply because they’re out of shape. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re overweight – your core muscles may just be in need of some strengthening. Your core muscles include vital muscles that support your back, and if they are weak, you’re bound to experience some degree of back pain.

One of the best ways to strengthen these muscles is through aerobic activity, such as walking. Walking has numerous health benefits for people of all age ranges and fitness levels, so no matter who you are, it’s always a great idea to get in a nice walk.

You could use a treadmill to get in some aerobic activity, but walking outside is better for improving mental health and a way to get out of the house during periods of quarantine. Even walks as short as 15 minutes have a demonstrable positive effect on your physical and mental health, so try to fit one into your daily routine. And, of course – remember to wear your mask if you’re walking outside in a populated area.

2. Bird Dog

The bird dog is a great workout for strengthening your back without putting much strain on the back while you’re performing the exercise, and it is easily customizable depending on your fitness level.

Here’s how to perform the exercise:

  • Get on all fours, keeping your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips.
  • Simultaneously extend your right arm and left leg, ensuring your hips stay square to the ground. Hold for 2 seconds.
  • Return to the starting position and then alternate, switching to the opposite arm and leg for your next extension.

If you’re more advanced in your fitness level, you can increase the difficulty of this workout by starting from a plank position instead of on all fours.

Our physical therapists recommend sets of 10 (5 extensions on each side), increasing by 10 rep increments depending on your fitness level.

3. Pelvic Tilts

The pelvic tilt is a subtle spine movement that helps strengthen the support muscles in your lower back. They make for a great back exercise for those suffering from back pain, as they require very little movement while still providing a nice stretch.

Here’s how to perform the exercise:

  • Lie on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  • You should feel how your lower back is slightly off the floor while lying in this natural position, due to the curve of your spine.
  • Exhale and gently rock your hips toward your head; as you do this, you should feel your lower back pressing into the floor.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds while breathing slowly and intentionally.

If you need to see this one in action (it’s a little difficult to visualize), here’s a video.

Our physical therapists recommend trying reps of 2-3 for 10 seconds at a time.

4. Cobra

Do you experience back pain after a long day at the (home) office? You’re not alone – more than 65 million Americans reported a recent incidence of back pain and around 16 million suffer from chronic or long-lasting back pain.

The cobra, also known as back extension, is a fantastic way to strengthen your back muscles and reduce back pain. This is especially important for people who sit for the majority of the day or work a desk job.

Here’s how to perform the exercise:

  • Lie flat on your stomach with your hands by your sides, positioned directly under your shoulders and hands facing forward. Fully extend your legs and flex your toes away from your body.
  • Press your hips into the floor and pull your chest away from the ground while keeping your hips steady. Arch your low back and you should feel the muscles in your chest and abs stretch. Hold this position for 15-30 seconds depending on tolerance.
  • Gently lower your body back to rest position.

While this is a great exercise for back pain, if you experience sharp or increased back pain from this exercise, you should stop the exercise immediately and consult your physical therapist – this may be a sign of acute injury.

5. Knees to Chest

This exercise is designed to stretch and strengthen core back muscles without putting any strain on the back.

Here’s how to perform the exercise:

  • Lie flat on your back.
  • Hold one knee with both hands, keeping the other leg extended straight along the ground.
  • Draw the knee into your chest, with your hands clasped behind your thigh or at the shinbone.
  • Avoid lifting your hips as you draw in your knee.

Our physical therapists recommend holding this stretch for 1-3 minutes on each side and then repeat with the other knee. 

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