Back pain exercisesChronic Conditions

Back Pain Exercises: An Essential Guide

The human back. That complex arrangement of overlapping muscles, tendons, and ligaments all surrounding an adjoined column of bones encasing a half-meter-long bundle of delicate nerves that serves as the essential link between the brain and the rest of the body. Add to this the constant twisting, bending, and other stresses wreaked on this crucial structure, and it is no surprise why back pain is one of the most common medical problems plaguing adults, with over 80% having experienced it at least once in their life…with many enduring it on a chronic basis. 

Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce lower back pain and to prevent it from reoccurring in the future. This article will focus on one of the most effective ways—physical conditioning of the back—by guiding you through nine easy, low-impact exercises that will improve its strength and flexibility.

Lower Back Pain: Common Causes

For the majority of cases of low back pain, the source can usually be pinpointed to one of the following:

  • Strain of the large back muscles that support the spine
  • Irritation of a large nerve that comes out of your spine and down your legs
  • Irritation of smaller nerves between the spinal discs
  • Weakening of the spinal discs
  • Injury of any of the bones, ligaments, or joints throughout the spine

Back Strain

Lower Back Pain Causes Back Strengthening Exercises

As one of the most common causes of non-chronic lower back pain, back strain can affect people of any age. Lifting a heavy object, twisting, or sudden movements can all cause microscopic tears to develop in your muscles and ligaments, which then become inflamed. This inflammation leads to muscle spasms that cause the pain and stiffness you experience, with the symptoms themselves ranging from an annoying ache to a debilitating pain preventing you from carrying on your normal life.

Lower Back Pain Causes Back Strengthening Exercises core

So why are some people more prone to back strain than others? It is because your spine is supported largely by your core—the muscles that make up your back, abdomen, pelvis, and buttocks. Whenever any of these muscles become weakened or stiff, not only are the muscles more prone to injury, but the increased burden on the spine itself can lead to instability and structural damage over time. 

Similar to how reinforced steel can bear significantly 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 types of maneuvers decrease stiffness and reinforce the supporting muscles, protecting your spine and making you less susceptible to daily stresses that can trigger lower back pain. Not only that, but when done properly and gradually, low-impact exercises improve circulation into the tissues, disc spaces, and around the ligaments in the back, facilitating the healing of strained muscles.

Typical characteristics lower back pain caused by back strain:

  • Pain that comes on suddenly
  • Pain that is localized in the lower back and doesn’t radiate into the leg
  • Soreness of the back muscles to touch
  • Improvement of the pain with rest
  • Worsening of the pain with standing or walking


Lower Back Pain Causes Back Strengthening Exercises sciatica

In contrast to a muscle strain, sciatic nerve pain—or sciatica—feels quite different from lower back pain caused by back strain. The sciatic nerve is the largest single nerve in your body and is composed of individual nerve roots that branch out from your lower spine to combine and form the sciatic nerve. The word “sciatica” describes the various symptoms one experiences when the sciatic nerve is compressed or irritated by some cause.

Often times, the culprit is a herniated disc (eg. ‘slipped‘ or ‘bulging‘ disc) that results in a pinched nerve. However, a number of other conditions, including degenerative disc disease (age-related weakening of spinal discs), arthritis of the spine, and muscle inflammation and spasm can all lead to irritation of the sciatic nerve, causing sciatica.

While the specific symptoms of sciatic nerve pain vary widely and depend on the location of nerve involvement, they are usually characterized by pain or tingling in the lower back or buttocks that travels down the back of the leg, which can then lead to weakness in the leg or foot.

Typical characteristics of sciatica:

  • Pain that is ongoing
  • Symptoms that are felt on only one side of the buttock or leg
  • Pain that is worse in the leg/foot than in the back
  • Pain that improves when lying down or walking but worsens when standing or sitting for long periods
  • Sensations characterized by burning, tingling, or prickling
  • Pain that is sharp or searing, rather than dull
  • Symptoms accompanied by weakness, numbness, or difficulty moving the leg/foot
  • Shooting leg pain that can be so severe that it becomes difficult to stand or walk

For those with sciatica caused by a herniated disc, regular exercise is a useful component of pain management. In addition to improving spinal support, certain low-impact exercises, when properly done, facilitate the exchange of nutrients and fluids within your spinal discs, keeping them healthy and preventing them from exerting extra pressure onto the sciatic nerve. 

Exercises for Lower Back Pain Relief

With that said, let’s get started! For your reference and convenience, printable handouts of all these exercises are provided here for you

A few notes regarding back exercises:

  • Try to incorporate the exercises into your days, aiming to do them regularly at least 4 times a week.
  • Go slow and be patient; depending on your physical condition, it may take several weeks before you ‘feel’ a difference. Nevertheless, rest assured that you are benefiting from them. 
  • Consider working with a physical therapist or trained specialist to develop the proper form and to focus on exercises that are targeted to your specific needs.
  • For those with limitations in mobility, check out these seated exercises.

And most importantly, always check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen for the first time, especially if you are currently having back pain or had a recent injury. On that line, if you have persistent back pain or pain that worsens over time, it is even more crucial to see a physician or a spine specialist for proper evaluation and diagnosis and for the ruling out of serious conditions. 

Spine Flexibility Exercises

These stretching exercises are designed to improve flexibility of your spine by restoring movement within the vertebrae and their surrounding muscles and ligaments. 

Exercises marked with an asterisk (*) are ones that are also appropriate for those with sciatic nerve pain caused by herniated discs.

Standing Hamstring Stretch

Lower Back Pain Causes Back Strengthening Exercises

The hamstrings run through the back of your thighs. Tightness in this muscle limits motion in the pelvis which then increase stress across the lower back, affecting your posture. This maneuver gradually lengthens the hamstrings to reduce the stress on the lower back.

Starting position: Place the heel of your 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. Alternate legs and repeat 3 times on each side. 

Back Extension*

Lower Back Pain Causes Back Strengthening Exercises sciatica

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.

ActionProp 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.

Do 4 sets, resting for a minute in between. 


Gluteal Stretch*

Lower Back Pain Causes Back Strengthening Exercises sciatica

Starting position: Lie on your back with both knees bent, 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 toward your chest. You should feel a stretch in your top leg deep into your buttocks, hips, as well as lower back area; you may also feel it along the side or back of your thigh. Hold this position for 20 seconds. Switch to the other leg. Do this 3 times with each leg.

Core 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. 

Cat Curl


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 this 10 times. 

Work up to doing 3 sets. 

Quadruped Arm-Leg Raise*


Starting position: Get down on your hands and knees in a similar position as above. Keep your head in a neutral position.

Action: Start by tightening your abdomen to stiffen the spine. Being mindful to keep it tightened, raise one arm and the opposite leg away from you until they are parallel to the floor. Hold this position for 5 seconds. Lower your arm and leg slowly and switch sides. Do this 10 times on each side. Work up to doing 3 sets, resting in between. 

Pelvic Tilt


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 10 times, working up to 3 sets. 

Partial Curl*

Partial Curl

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 10 times, gradually working up to 3 sets.


Side Plank*


Starting position: Turn onto your right side with your legs extended and your feet and hips resting on the ground and stacked on top of each other. Prop up your torso by placing your right elbow on the ground directly under your shoulder, aligning your head with your spine.

Action: As you exhale, tighten your abdomen as you lift your hips and knees off the floor, balancing on your forearm and the outside of your foot. Hold for 10 before relaxing. Switch sides and repeat. Gradually work up to maintaining the position for a one minute.

NoteYou can decrease the difficulty of this by starting with your knees and hips flexed to 45° angles.

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. While keeping your knees bent, lift one leg until the knee is over your hip, holding for 5 seconds before lowering it. Repeat this exercise with the opposite leg. Then lift your arm over your head, holding for 5 seconds before lowering it. Repeat with the opposite arm.

When you can do this easily, start raising 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.

Now that you know some essential exercises for lower back pain relief, here’s to moving towards better back health!

lower back pain exercises

*The information presented in “Lower Back Pain: An Essential Guide” 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.

Phoebe Chi, MD
Phoebe Chi, MD

As a physician educator and the managing editor of Health + Inspiration, Dr. Chi aims to inspire, inform, and empower the reader community. She is the author of Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, a poetry-infused health guide, and founder of Pendants for a Cause, a nonprofit organization with the purpose of raising funds to fight illness, provide care, and bring awareness to medically vulnerable populations around the world.

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72 replies »

  1. Extremely useful information. The problem for my 78-year-old husband is that he is unable to do those types of exercises. He does stretches (standing up) and has physical therapy on and off. Do you have any other recommendations that may help him? (He does walk quite a bit and also swims). Thank you, Phoebe.

  2. This is so very important post. It will help so many and also I pulled my hamstrings muscles just a few weeks ago and for sure am trying all out
    Grateful again for sharing so much detailed information and very kind of you for the heart you have full of love and compassion. Be blessed 🙏🙏

  3. I love your ‘on health’ series! Your style is in clear and accessible and well thought out, and the illustrations are really useful. In fact, I believe you could make a book of these ‘chapters’ which people could keep on their bed stands and coffee tables. I’d buy one! Best wishes. Tim

  4. Excellent blog. Thank you! I feel like I’m your most demanding reader :)..can I request exercises for shoulder and knee pain as well and any thoughts on anti-inflammatory diets when it comes to inflamed they actually work?.. Okay, I’ll stop now!

  5. A most excellent post. I can attest to the importance the core — not that I always do it. For me, the most frequent cause of low back pain seems to be tight hamstrings. That’s the first area I work and that usually provides fairly quick relief.

  6. Great stuff… these are all exercises my pt gave me to do… Of course when the VA doctor told me that my back pain basically means I’m getting old I told him I want a second opinion…. He said, “Well you need to lose a little weight also.”

  7. I had a back ache this weekend. My wife said it was from lifting 6, 50 pound bags of garden soil into the car at the garden center. I told her I thought it was from standing at the sink washing the dinner dishes. Could you settle that argument? 😉

  8. Thanks, Phoebe. 1997 ruptured L-disc, thought I was paralized. fortunately, a pal came by the Saturday (closed) newspaper and saw me writhing beside my desk: called a buddy Chiropracter(sp?) who put me on his table and immediatly said: you need an orthopedic doctor – still surprises me some medical practitioners of any stripe sometimes seem jealous of their turff – and six weeks of rest…so I returned in week two worse…he blew up: “I said rest, J1” Hey, I replied, I cut back on my walking from five miles daily to just two: that’s rest, right? We got it straightened out…still do many (and will include the rest!) of your posted exercises most days. A good bed…sometimes just a yoga pad and good pillow on the floor – is essential. Posture, too. Again, thanks, Doc: you are a Puppy!

  9. Oh how I can relate to this one! Subject to inadvertently twisting carelessly, my lower back status has been good/stable for many years now as a result of both doing those exercises, and seeing my chiropractor on a regular basis.
    Q: I am given to understand that the back extension exercise is better done before going to bed, rather than (e.g.) first thing in the morning. Something to do with the spinal discs not moving so well after laying in bed all night vs being well lubricated after a day of moving around. Your thoughts? Thx. Phoebe.

    • Hi Colin!

      As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to stretch muscles that are ‘cold,’ or have not had a chance to warm up, as they are less pliable and can strain easily. Therefore it is true that it is not good to do back extensions right after getting out of bed, as your spinal muscles/ligaments are still ‘stiff.’

      With that said, if the morning hours are the best time for you to fit in these exercises, there is nothing harmful about stretching at this time of day; just give yourself half an hour or so to move around to get the circulation going before you do them. So say, if you take Ray out on a walk in the morning, after you get back would be a great time to do some of these exercises.

      I hope this helps!

  10. A wonderful post Phoebe, thank you! I’ve three herniodiscs in the Lumbar. Ouch. It recently caused me to lose a few days of work but is better now. So incredibly painful. Had three steroid injections a few years ago. ❤

    • Ouch indeed! As an aside, please don’t do these exercises unless okay-ed by a spine specialist (this is true for everyone but especially in this case…). I’m glad you are feeling better now. Wishing you the best. 😊

  11. I was going to say the same, you read my mind. I literally didn’t go somewhere with my husband just now because of my back pain. Thank you… I was just doing the gluteal stretches a few mins ago then I saw this.

  12. Phoebe, it’s almost as if you can read my mind. My lower back has been an issue since my pregnancy and apparently it’s weak because I fractured my tailbone. These exercises will come in handy, thanks!

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