Back pain. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know how debilitating it can be. In this post, I will be discussing simple exercises that you can do to strengthen your core muscles, help alleviate back pain, and prevent future injury. For a more detailed discussion on back pain, please refer to this article.
One of the most common causes of sudden low back pain is back strain (“pulled muscle”). When you lift heavy objects, twist the wrong way, or make sudden movements, tiny, microscopic tears can develop in your muscles and ligaments, causing pain and stiffness that can affect your daily functioning.
Why are some people more prone to back strain than others? It is because your spine is supported largely by your core muscles—the muscles that make up your back, abdomen, pelvis, and buttocks. Whenever any of these supporting muscles become weakened or stiff, not only are they more prone to injury, but the increased burden on the spine itself can lead to instability and future problems.
Similar to how reinforced steel can bear more weight than an aluminum pole, a strong, well-conditioned back can withstand considerably more stress than one that has not been strengthened through exercise. When regularly performed, these simple maneuvers decrease stiffness and reinforce those supporting muscles, protecting your spine and making you less susceptible to daily stresses and future injury.
When doing these exercises, start slow and be patient; depending on your physical condition, it may take several weeks before you feel a difference. Try to incorporate the exercises into your daily routine, gradually working up to 4 times a week, or consider working with a physical therapist or a trained specialist.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
The hamstrings run through the back of your thighs. Tightness in this muscle limits motion in the pelvis, which then increases stress across the lower back, affecting your posture and leading to pain. This maneuver gradually lengthens the hamstrings to reduce the stress on the lower back.
- Starting position: Place the heel of one leg on a stool about 15 inches (38 cm) high. Keep your knee straight.
- Action: Lean forward, bending at the hips until you feel a mild stretch in the back of your thigh. Do not roll your shoulders or bend at the waist. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat.
- Starting position: First, lie face down on the floor for 5 minutes. If this hurts too much, place a pillow under your stomach for a minute before removing it. When you can lie on your stomach for 5 minutes without a pillow, continue onto the next part.
- Action: Prop yourself up on your elbows and hold this position for 2 minutes before returning to your original position. Then, keeping your neck straight, arch your back by pushing down on your hands, straightening your arms, keeping your hips flat on the floor. You should feel a gentle stretch in your abdominal muscles as you arch backwards. Hold this position for 1 second initially before lowering yourself. Repeat this 10 times, gradually working up to maintaining the arched position for 10 seconds.
- Starting position: Lie on your back with both knees bent and the ankle of one leg resting over the knee of your other leg.
- Action: Grasp the thigh of the bottom leg and pull it in towards your chest. You should feel a stretch in your top leg deep into your buttocks, hips, and lower back area; you may also feel it along the side or back of your thigh. Hold this position for 20 seconds. Switch leg.
Back Strengthening Exercises
These exercises are designed to keep your back strong and well-positioned by helping the spine find its ‘neutral’ (ie. most comfortable) position and then training the surrounding muscles to maintain it in this position.
- Starting position: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Action: With your arms stretched forward, slowly exhale, and curl your body forward as if doing a sit-up, focusing on tightening your abdominal muscles. Stop once your shoulders clear the floor. Hold for 3 seconds. Relax and return to starting position. Repeat.
- Starting position: Get down on your hands and knees. Your palms should be under your shoulders, your knees directly under your hips, and your back and neck in a neutral, straight position.
- Action: As you inhale, let your stomach sag, allowing your back to curve slowly downward, one vertebra at a time. Hold for 5 seconds before returning to neutral position. Then, as you exhale, pull your stomach inwards as you round your back (like a frightened cat). You should feel your abdominal muscles tighten. Hold this position for 5 seconds before returning to the neutral position. Repeat.
- Starting position: Lie on your back, knees bent with feet flat on the floor. Keep your feet straight and hip-width apart. Your upper body should be relaxed and your chin gently tucked in. You can place a small, flat cushion under your head if it is more comfortable.
- Action: As you exhale, tighten your abdominal muscles as you gradually flatten your lower back into the floor. Hold this position for 5 seconds, then relax. Now inhale as you tilt your pelvis the other direction by arching your lower back, feeling your back muscles tighten. Hold for 5 seconds before relaxing. Repeat.
The Dead Bug
- Starting position:Lie on your back with your knees bent, arms at your sides, feet flat on the floor.
- Action: Draw in your abdomen and tighten your abdominal muscles. Raise one leg and the opposite arm together, holding the position for 5 seconds. Lower your arm and leg and raise the opposite arm and leg up and hold for 5 seconds. Remember to keep your abdominal muscles tight throughout. Once this becomes comfortable, lift both feet and arms off the floor and keep them slightly above ground as you complete the above maneuver. Do not let your lowered arms and legs touch the ground. You should feel your abdominal muscles working harder.
Want the exercises for quick reference?
Below is a printable handout with all the information you’ll need:
*The information in this post can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.