Best Exercises to Help With Back Pain

October 7, 2022

BY Nima Salari, M.D. FAAOS
Dr. Salari is a Board-Certified, Fellowship-Trained Orthopedic Spine Surgeon with specialized training in the operative and non-operative treatment of pathologic conditions affecting the spine. He specializes in ultra-minimally invasive endoscopic spine surgery and cervical artificial disc replacement.

Back pain, especially lower back pain (LBP), is widespread. Almost everyone will experience back pain as an acute episode or chronic condition during their lifetimes. In fact, up to 23% of adults worldwide have chronic low back pain.

While back pain makes everyday tasks more challenging, certain activities can help relieve back pain, including exercise. If you suffer from chronic back pain, pain that has lasted for 12 weeks or more, it’s best to consult with a medical professional before attempting any new exercise.

How Exercise Helps Back Pain

Physiotherapy exercises for back pain can strengthen your back, stomach and leg muscles and support your spine, relieving back pain. An exercise program for nonspecific chronic back pain must target muscular strength, flexibility and aerobic fitness. Core muscular strength can assist in lumbar spine support, flexibility improves range of motion and movement and aerobics increases blood flow and nutrients to the soft tissues of the back.

Exercise stretches, repairs and strengthens the muscles of the back. Increased blood flow and nutrients improve the healing process and reduce stiffness. The improved flexibility of ligaments and tendons prevents injuries and back pain by keeping the connective fibers from tearing under stress.

Physical activity as a treatment for low back pain is essential in assisting in completing daily activities. However, different exercises result in varying levels of effectiveness. Keep in mind that too much or too little physical activity can agitate low back pain instead of relieving it.

Best Exercises for Lower Back Pain and Sciatica

You must know the cause of your pain before you can begin treating it. Sciatica and lower back pain are different, but both are symptoms, not diagnoses. People with acute or chronic back pain may be more prone to sciatica pain, but many risk factors exist.

The following exercises help relieve lower back pain, which may reduce sciatic pain. The effectiveness of exercise depends on the type and cause of the pain. Consult a medical professional before attempting any exercises, as some may not be recommended for your specific condition and could worsen it.

1. Bicycling

Bicycling increases endurance and the performance of the heart, lungs and musculoskeletal system, including the spine. It’s less jarring to the spine than other aerobic exercises. Specifically, spinning on a stationary bike provides a more intense workout with minimal stress on the spine.

Here’s how to exercise on a bike to help with black pain: 

  • Warm up: Stretch your muscles and back before beginning your workout to prevent injury.
  • Adjust the seat: Whether using a stationary or nonstationary bike, you must ensure the seat is at the proper height. If needed, use a seat cover for extra cushion.
  • Wear safety gear: If your bike is nonstationary, wear a helmet and shock absorbers. Always wear reflective clothing and put reflectors on your bike so drivers and pedestrians can see you clearly.
  • Use proper form: Proper form involves distributing weight to your arms and keeping your chest up. Depending on your back condition, you could feel more comfortable leaning forward in the seat and on the handlebars or in a reclining position.
  • Set a goal: Set an achievable time or distance goal and build upon it as you increase your fitness.
  • Cool down: Take 10-15 minutes to cool down after your exercise. This can involve bicycling at a relaxed pace before stretching.

2. Walking

Walking is good for low back pain because it’s a low-impact exercise that offers the benefits of regular physical activity without aggravating the muscles and tendons of the lower back. It uses and stretches muscles in your back, is easy on your joints and can reduce bone and muscle loss. The amount and type of muscles activated depend on the slope and speed at which you walk.

To get the most benefit out of your walks, you should: 

  • Set a goal: Know where you’re walking to, how many days per week you want to walk and whether you’re walking alone or with someone. Having a plan can make walking easier and more enjoyable.
  • Dress appropriately: Wear comfortable clothes to walk in and supportive shoes.
  • Warm-up: Spend a few minutes stretching before walking.
  • Control your pace: Start with a more relaxed pace for smaller intervals and increase it as you build up stamina.
  • Pay attention to your feet: Touch the ground with the heel of your foot first, then roll your weight forward.
  • Cool down: Slow your pace at the end of your walk and stretch.

3. Swimming

Swimming helps reduce back pain by alleviating pressure on your joints, increasing back strength and improving circulation. It’s a low-impact exercise because the buoyancy of the water will support your weight, reducing stress on your joints and spine and allowing for a broader range of motion.

When swimming to relieve low back pain, you should:

  • Enroll in lessons: Consider enrolling in classes with an instructor who can show you the perfect form for strokes. 
  • Avoid twisting: When swimming, avoid turning your hips and waist because this will stress your spine. Using goggles and a snorkel can help when you’re swimming laps. 
  • Start slow: Increase your duration, intensity and frequency over time. Make your movements slow and controlled. Focus on performing spine-friendly strokes, like side or backstrokes.
  • Use a floatation device or pool noodle: Using a floatation device or pool noodle will keep your workout low-impact.

4. Resistance Exercises

Resistance training reduces low back pain, functional disability, stress and creatine kinase — a chemical in the bloodstream that tends to be higher when muscles are damaged or stressed. It’s an effective treatment for low back pain because it increases the function of your muscles, muscle mass, muscle strength and range of motion. 

Some resistance exercises you can do to alleviate back pain include: 

  • Focus on core muscle exercises: When using resistance training for back pain, focus on activities that target core muscles — the back, obliques, buttocks, abdominals and proximal leg muscles. You can perform resistance exercises with bands, machines, small weights or gravity.
  • Keep it slow and steady: Ensure you avoid activities that involve extreme or abrupt turns. Focus on slow, controlled resistance training to strengthen your muscles.
  • Use weights: You can combine walking with resistance training by using dumbbells and pumping your arms when walking. Start with lighter weights and work your way up to heavier ones.

5. Yoga

Yoga is a mind-body therapy that treats back pain and stress. It’s a gentle practice that stretches and strengthens back muscles, improving mobility. Doing a yoga flow involves going through a series of poses or postures. Many yoga postures are good sitting exercises for lower back pain.

To practice yoga safely, you should:

  • Avoid twisting and extending simultaneously: When you twist and extend at the same time, it can compress your intervertebral joints.
  • Use props: You should use blocks and other props for additional support. If you can’t reach your toes, use a yoga belt. 
  • Do forward bends seated: Most people do forward bends while standing, but when you have low back pain, you need to do them seated. Ensure you brace your stomach as you return upright. 
  • Modify poses: Any yoga pose can be modified. Speak to an instructor or look up modifications for poses that are too challenging. Always stop if a pose is painful. 
  • Focus on poses for back pain: Some of these poses include cat-cow, downward-facing dog, extended triangle, sphinx, spinal twists and bridge. 

Workouts to Avoid With Back Pain

Similar to how some exercises relieve back pain, others worsen it. You must avoid putting too much stress on your spine when dealing with back pain. Most of the discomfort felt during workouts should disappear as the muscles strengthen. However, there’s a difference between discomfort and pain. If you can’t work through the discomfort, you need to consult with a doctor, as the exercise you’re doing may be aggravating your lower back pain. 

Here are some of the exercises to avoid when you have back pain.

1. Running

There’s a link between running and upper back pain. People who experience upper back pain after running long distances might suffer from bad posture. Slouching flexes your spine and strains the posterior muscles over time, resulting in injury. The stress of long-distance running exasperates the problems caused by poor posture.

Running stresses your entire body, including your back and joints. When dealing with low back pain, you want to decrease the strain on your back, not increase it. Instead of running for back pain, you could opt for brisk walking. 

2. Toe Touches

Standing toe touches is a deep stretch that tests your flexibility. However, standing toe touches won’t feel great when you suffer back pain. You should avoid standing toe touches because: 

  • They stress your back: The goal of standing toe touches is to stretch your hamstrings, not your lower back. You lock your knees and bend over, feeling a burn in the back of your legs, but your back will carry the exercise. When you rise, your lower back does most of the work.
  • They do not relieve tension: You might think toe touches are an excellent way to relieve tension in your back by stretching your spine. Unfortunately, they don’t stretch your entire spine, only your lower back. Your body will unconsciously or consciously adjust positions to avoid immobile areas and pain, preventing tension from being relieved.
  • They put pressure on your spinal discs: Since the lower back is forced to stretch, pressure is placed on the spinal discs.

3. Heavy Weight Lifting

While some resistance training can help lower back pain, heavy lifting should be avoided. Heavy lifting is a common cause of muscle strain because it is easy to overstretch or put too much force on your body. You might twist or bend awkwardly when you lift heavy weights, causing pain and injury.

If you suffer from low back pain, you shouldn’t lift weights over your head or on your shoulders. These types of lifting will stress your spine. It’s best to lift lighter weights in a slow, controlled way to prevent further injury or pain in your back. You should always use proper form when lifting weights and avoid lifting more than you can handle.

4. Situps

For many people, any sitting exercise can cause low back pain, especially situps. Situps push the spine against the floor and employ the hip flexors. If the hip flexors are too tight, they can tug on the lower spine. The position and movement also work against the natural curvature of your spine, which can lead to pain, discomfort or injury.

Your core, the group of muscles that support your body, must be strong for you to do situps. When you have low back pain, your back may not be strong enough to support your core during the exercise. Attempting this exercise with a weak core will cause the muscles in your back to strain. Any amount of stress on your lower back can worsen your pain and condition.

5. Crunches

Repeated flexing and extending of the spine cause many back injuries. Like with situps, when you push your back to the floor to do crunches, you work against your spine’s natural curvature. Hip flexors that are too tight will pull your spine. All this added stress will only aggravate your injury. Additionally, crunches can cause neck pain if not performed correctly, and don’t target the areas you need to reduce back pain.

Schedule an Appointment at DISC

The Desert Institute for Spine Care (DISC) is an orthopedic spine center in Phoenix, Arizona. Our team of surgeons treats various spinal conditions, including herniated discs, sciatica, chronic back pain, lower back pain and middle back pain. Our practice uses innovative, cutting-edge technology and a customized approach to patient care — the treatments we offer range from nonsurgical to least-invasive and minimally-invasive spine surgery.

DISC surgeons are recognized leaders in the industry of noninvasive, least-invasive and minimally invasive orthopedic surgery and have a collective 50 years of experience in the field. If you’re ready to schedule an appointment, contact us online or call us at (602) 944-2900.


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