Health / Expert Advice

Try These 7 Strength Exercises for a Bad Back

Build the muscles that support your back to increase strength and reduce pain.

Despite the fact that most of us spend the hours between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. sitting behind a desk, our body wasn’t designed for this type of extended stationary positioning. In fact, our sedentary lifestyle, even if we’re active before or after work, is one of the main causes of back pain. The good news is that exercise can seriously help strengthen our back muscles and reduce pain. This is especially true of particular types of exercise, such as yoga, stretching, and certain strength moves. Here are a few strength exercises for a bad back that may help alleviate some discomfort.

Wall Sits

This pose is excellent for strengthening the muscles that support your back, including your glutes, calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings. To begin, Stephanie George, certified yoga instructor and personal trainer, suggests leaning against a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart and firmly planted on the ground. “Walk your feet forward a few inches, exhale, and [then] slowly slide down the wall with your back pressed firmly against it until your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle,” she says. “Make sure [that] your knees are directly over your ankles and then hold this position for 20 seconds before coming back to standing position.”

Planks

Most people don’t think of this as a stationary strengthening movement. However, fitness experts say that it works wonders for your back muscles, as well as your abs, shoulder girdle, and hip complex. It’s also an accessible move that almost anyone can do relatively anywhere. To get even more out of your average plank, Hope Pedraza, ACSM-certified personal trainer, nutrition coach and founder of inBalance in San Antonio, Texas, suggests adding a knee pull to really get into those transverse abdominals, which is key to maintaining a strong, pain-free back.

“Start in a plank position with elbows underneath the shoulders and legs extended. Pull the pubic bone up to the belly button to ensure that you are not working into the back (your low back should be perfectly flat, with no sway in it when you are in your plank). Lift the hips up into a pike position, drawing the right knee in towards the forehead while rounding the back in a “cat” position (other leg remains on the ground),” she describes. “Return back to your plank position and repeat on the other leg.”

Double Leg Stretch

This Pilates exercise works your abdominals by strengthening your deep core. This includes the psoas and transverse, which help support the muscles in your back that allow for proper posture. “Building a strong front will help build a strong (and pain-free) back,” says Pedraza. She recommends lying supine with your legs in a tabletop position, bringing your shoulder blades off the floor to lift your chest with one hand on each knee. Next, inhale to extend your arms overhead in-line with your ears and your legs out to the front diagonal. Exhale to circle the arms around to return to starting position.

Bodyweight Deadlift

“This movement teaches proper engagement of the posterior chain—to keep the work in the correct place (out of the low back and in the legs and abs) when lifting or moving heavy objects, or before lifting heavier weights,” says Pedraza. “Deadlifts are great to strengthen the backside, but starting with this basic, fundamental movement with little to no weights is perfect for finding the correct muscle engagement and build[ing] a solid base, before loading up the barbell.”

Start standing with your feet hip-width distance apart, your weight in your heels, and your knees tracked over your middle toe. “On the inhale, pitch forward from the hips, maintaining a neutral spine and reach your hands down in front,” she says. “Keep your gaze steady in front, your weight in your heels, and pull your navel in towards your spine.” If you’re looking for more of a challenge, she suggests using a weighted ball to engage even more muscles.  

Cat/Cow Stretch

This yoga position stretches the entire length of your spine. This makes it an ideal exercise for folks battling back pain. “Cat/cow performs a full range of motion of flexion and extension,” explains Stephanie Rittenour, D.C., a chiropractic physician at Parker River Chiropractic & Wellness in Newburyport, Massachusetts. “The more slowly you perform the exercise, the more you work the muscles.” To begin, George suggests getting on your hands and knees with your hands placed under your shoulders, knees under hips, and with your spine neutral. “Once you are positioned in one long line from the crown of your head out through your tailbone, exhale and slowly round your back towards the ceiling, pulling in your belly button back towards your spine,” she says. “Inhale and arch your back, lift your chest and tailbone to the ceiling, and pull your shoulder blades together.”

Bridge

“This yoga pose stretches your chest, neck, spine, and hips while strengthening your back, glutes, and hamstrings,” says George. She recommends starting the position lying flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, and arms by your sides. “Pressing through the soles of your feet, lift your hips as high as you can, just be careful not to squeeze the glutes too hard,” she says. “Walk your shoulder blades in towards each other to lift a little bit higher, pause for one breath then lower down.”

Clams

According to George, this yoga exercise is great for the musculature of the back, abdominals, and gluteal muscles. It’s also easy to modify, so if you have pain when performing this exercise, you can simply decrease how far you lift your arm and leg off the ground. She recommends starting out on your stomach with your arms and legs stretched out. “Gently lift your right arm while you lift your left leg, slowly and controlled, hold for five seconds and bring your arm and leg back to the ground,” she says. “Switch to the left arm and right leg, and lift them up and hold for another five seconds.” If you find this exercise too difficult, then do one arm, then leg, before switching; repeat each side 15 times. You can keep your forehead on the ground or you can place a small towel under your forehead for comfort.

Incorporate these strength exercises for a bad back into your weekly workouts. You’ll strengthen the muscles that support your back and help reduce pain in the area.

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