Strengthening the muscles in your core region may help you prevent lower back pain if you do them regularly. In fact, healthcare providers no longer recommend that people with back pain rest for prolonged periods. Instead, they encourage them to move their bodies in a way that doesn’t worsen the pain. No wonder! Staying physically active bolsters blood flow to strained muscles and reduces stiffness. Before exercising with back pain, talk to your doctor though. In certain situations, like a ruptured disc, exercise may not be advisable.
If you have back pain, some exercises are better than others and some you should avoid. First, let’s look at some exercises to avoid if your back hurts or you’ve had a recent back strain.
Sit-Ups and Crunches
They’re one of the most popular exercises for strengthening the abdominal muscles but avoid them if you’re experiencing back discomfort. When you crunch or do a sit-up, your hips do some of the work and this places added strain on the discs in your lower back.
Leg lifts, an exercise where you raise both legs off the ground as you contract your abdominal muscles, also pull on the muscles in the lower back and can worsen lower back pain. A safer alternative is raising one knee toward your chest one at a time. To do this:
- Lie on a mat with both knees bent and your feet flat on the mat.
- Raise one knee toward your chest while keeping the other foot on the mat.
- Hold at the top for 20 seconds and lower the leg back down to the starting position.
- Switch legs.
This leg lift variation places less stress on your lower spine while still activating your abs.
Another type of exercise to avoid lower back pain is any movement that requires twisting your body. Examples are bicycle crunches, windmills, and Russian twists, common movements that people do for abdominal training. If you have back pain, the last thing you want to do is twist your body. Excessive twisting can lead to spinal injuries or a disk or ligament injury. If you suffer from chronic back pain, avoid any kind of twisting exercises that make your back pain worse.
Even if you don’t have back pain, using poor form or being too aggressive when you twist your body can be risky for your lower back. In the worst-case scenario, twisting your lower back too forcefully could tear or rupture a disc in your lumbar spine.
Safer Ways to Work Your Core if You’re Prone to Back Pain
Now let’s look at the best exercises for strengthening your core muscles that don’t involve twisting or place excessive strain on your lower back.
Planks are a safe and effective exercises for working your core muscles, as they don’t necessarily involve twisting your body or raising your shoulders and legs off the floor. Plus, they engage all the muscles in your pelvis as you hold a plank isometrically. You can also modify planks by resting weight on your elbows as opposed to your hands when you do the exercise. As an extra bonus, doing planks can improve your posture by strengthening the muscles that stabilize your torso.
Mountain climbers activate your ab muscles and boost your heart rate, so they’re a great way to burn fat to get those abs to show through. Since you’re holding your torso straight, they’re a safe exercise if you’re prone to back pain, although you should stop if you experience discomfort when you do the exercise. Here’s a refresher on how to do one:
- Get into a push-up position with your arms at the top of the movement.
- Holding your back straight and stiff, raise your left knee toward your chest and touch the floor with your toes.
- Quickly bring your left knee and back to the starting position as you raise your right knee toward your chest and then touch your right foot to the floor as you switch legs again.
- Keep alternating legs back and forth while holding your core tight. Feel your heart rate rise and the sweat pour.
The Vacuum Exercise
Another safe abdominal movement that won’t stress your back are abdominal vacuums. What makes this exercise unique is it works the deep muscle in your abdominal region called the transverse abdominis. This is the muscle that holds everything in your pelvis firm. Here’s how to do one:
- Stand straight.
- While standing straight, fill your lungs with air and then exhale it as you draw in your navel toward your spine.
- Hold the maximal exhale for 20 to 30 seconds in an isometric manner.
- Relax and repeat.
The beauty of this exercise is you can do it almost anywhere. Use it to tone your abdominals in a stealthy manner when you’re standing at the kitchen sink or in line at the grocery store.
The Bottom Line
Treat your back well. You want it to stay healthy enough to support your spine and allow you to get around without discomfort. Of course, you also want to avoid more serious back problems like herniated discs. You can do that by doing exercises with proper form and listening to your body. Pain is a sign you’re doing something wrong.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association, two out of three people will have significant lower back pain at some time in their lives. Make sure you’re doing all you can to lower your risk of a back injury. Warm-up before launching into a workout to make sure your muscles are warm and pliable.
Also, watch your posture when you’re working out and when you’re not. Slouching places added stress on the muscles, ligaments, and discs in your spine. Be aware of your posture and work on realigning your body throughout the day until it becomes natural. Exercise will also help with weight control, and that will take the pressure off your back.
Be sure you’re using proper form with every exercise you do too. Watch yourself in the mirror or have someone take a video as you work out. This will help you identify problems with form that can lead to or worsen back pain.
- com. “How Twisting Affects Your Back”
- com. “5 Strengthening Exercises for Lower Back Pain”
- Chou R, et al. (2007). Diagnosis and treatment of low back pain: A joint clinical practice guideline from the American College of Physicians and the American Pain Society. DOI. 10.7326/0003-4819-147-7-200710020-00006.