The Best Lower Back Exercises & Stretches for a Strong, Pain-Free Back
Reviewed by Ron Torrance, DO, FAOASM
December 18, 2018
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a measurable increase in chronic lower back pain in the U.S. It is estimated that at some point in our lives, 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain. This has led to chronic lower back pain being the second leading cause of disability in the U.S., which means that sufferers not only deal with pain but high medical bills and missed work. (1)
Though the prevalence of chronic lower back pain is high, some of the most common causes are due to mechanical issues or the way the body moves, rather than serious illness. For most people whose back pain is mechanical, it means that through lower back exercises, including rehabilitative exercises, stretching and strengthening, we can drastically reduce and often eliminate the presence of low back pain.
That being said, correctly diagnosing your lower back pain is the first step to understanding the cause as well as creating and implementing the right treatment plan to find lower back pain relief. (2)
Common Lower Back Injuries & Pain
Lower back pain can be the result of acute injury like a bulging disc or from chronic repetitive movement that can cause issues like a pinched nerve. On the flip side, tight and/or weak muscles in a major muscle group like the hip flexors can cause persistent pain. Regardless of the cause, the objective is the same. To reduce and eliminate pain.
Some of these injuries will require outside help from a medical professional like a chiropractor or spinal physician. Others, like those issues related to weak or tight muscles, can be treated through lower back exercises and stretches. And when your back is strong and your body is flexible, not only do you feel better, but the likelihood of developing lower back pain will be greatly reduced.
Degenerative Disc Disease
Degenerative disc disease is one of the most common causes of lower back pain. The spinal discs that act as shock absorbers for the vertebrae naturally degenerate over time through the aging process. The pain is most often felt in either the cervical spine and the lower back and can also be related to other issues like a herniated disc or osteoarthritis. (3)
Pinched or Compressed Nerve
The pain of a pinched nerve is caused by that nerve being compressed between ligament, tendons and bone either through repetitive motion or that area being held in a particular position for a long period of time. The treatment options vary from medication to physical therapy to surgery depending on the severity.
Muscle or Ligament Strain
Muscle and ligament strains are very common and can occur when the muscles are stretched too far. Lifting an object that is too heavy, over stretching the lower back muscles, falling and/or extreme physical exertion can weaken the muscles in the lower back which creates instability in the spine and can cause pain. In this case, treatment options include rest and anti-inflammatory medication as well as light stretching and improving overall strength and muscle tone. (4)
Lack of Exercise
As humans, we are meant to move. When we can’t, either because of health issues or lifestyle factors, our muscles and joints become tight and weak. This is how pain develops over time. But when lack of exercise is the predominant cause of lower back pain, the treatment becomes simple. A little exercise goes a long way especially when you focus on lower back exercises and stretches.
4 Benefits of a Strong, Flexible Lower Back
Our body was engineered for efficient movement. The organization of our bones in combination with the way our ligaments, tendons and muscles are linked together creates a connected system that is able to express functional movements we perform every day. By strengthening the muscles in our back with targeted lower back exercises, we will not only reduce pain, but improve upon other areas like spine stability and posture.
1. Improved posture and spinal stability
The erector spinae, or the muscles that form two columns that run along either side of the spine, assist muscles like the abdominals, hip flexors and obliques in holding the body in an upright position. By strengthening these muscles groups, you improve posture and stability by increasing muscular endurance and activation.
2. Improve balance
Balance is a critical tool for us as humans. Learning to walk upright allowed us to better adapt to our environment and helped guide us into a new era of human existence. We have been able to expand on the capabilities of the human body as expressed through sports like gymnastics and CrossFit. And though these activities might not be for everyone, maintaining balance is a key component of lifelong musculoskeletal function and preventing falls and injuries for everyone.
3. Build lean muscle
The saying goes, muscle weighs more than fat. And it’s true. But what we don’t always discuss is that as you build more muscle through bodyweight strength training and weightlifting, your body will need more fuel to sustain itself. Fat is a form of fuel so combining strength training with proper nutrition will not only help build lean muscle but will encourage weight loss as well.
4. Reduced back pain
We know that a lack of exercise can cause lower back pain through muscle strains and tight muscles. So when we incorporate exercise into our week, we not only will improve our overall health and well-being but significantly reduce our chances of developing back pain.
Best Lower Back Exercises
What can I do to strengthen my lower back? When thinking about lower back workouts, you want to include leg and low back exercises (like squats and deadlifts), but also abdominal exercises (like crunches and plank holds), as well as movements for your upper back (like pull-ups and ring rows). For the fullest and most focused workouts to improve lower back strength and function, make sure you target the following muscle groups:
Gluteus maximus, medius and minimus
What exercises strengthen the back? Almost any exercises can train your core and lower back muscles. The key is to perform each exercise with good posture and a tight core to reinforce good habits and increase the effectiveness of each movement. Here are the top lower back exercises:
1. Arch Hold
Start on your belly with your legs straight and arms extended overhead. Lift your legs and your chest to create a banana shape with your body. Stay long and extend your biceps by your ears. Squeeze your butt to create strength and tension along the back body. Hold this position for 30 seconds, rest and then repeat 2–3 more times.
2. Swimmer Kicks
From the arch hold, begin to make small “kicks” with the arms (forward, parallel to ground) and legs (fbackward and parallel to ground). This exercises add dynamic movement to the arch position. Complete 50 repetitions of swimmer kicks.
3. Forearm Plank
From the top of a push-up, or plank position, drop down to your forearms. Drive your forearms down into the floor as you pull your belly button up towards your spine. Engage your legs and squeeze your butt. Hold this position for one minute, rest, then repeat two more times.
4. Bird Dog
Don’t let the name fool you. This exercise is a great practice in balance and core control. From the top of a push-up with your hands underneath your shoulders and your legs strong and core tight, extend your right arm forward as you lift your left foot off the ground. Return to planks and then extend your left arm forward and lift your right foot up. Return to plank. Continue to alternate back and forth between sides for one minute. Rest, and then repeat two more times.
A proper squat requires ankle and hip mobility as well as core, back and glute strength. And it’s for these reasons that this movement made it onto this list. The better our squat, the stronger, more coordinated and healthier our bodies will be. (5)
Start with your feet shoulders distance apart. Turn your toes forward (if ankle mobility is an issue, turn your toes out slightly). Pull your belly button in towards your spine and widen your collar bones. Keep your heels firmly planted on the floor as you bring your hips back and down, and then below the line of your knees. Perform three sets of 20 reps.
Up until now, we have looked at movements that require little to no equipment. The final two movements will require a bit of external weight. Dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell will work best for both the bent row and deadlift.
6. Bent Row
Start standing with your feet hips distance apart and two dumbbells in your hands, palms facing your thighs. Bend your knees slightly and bow forward as you hinge at the hips. Let your arms hang down towards the ground. Pull your belly button in toward your spine as you widen your chest. Bend your elbows, bring the dumbbells to your outer ribs by drawing your shoulder blade together. Then straighten your arms and return back to the starting position. Perform three sets of 10 reps.
Stand with your feet hips distance apart with dumbbells or kettlebells in both hands. Keep your core tight and your chest wide as you bend your knees slightly. Begin to bow forward as you bring the dumbbells to the outside of your mid shins. Your back should be flat, your heels should be down and your shins vertically stacked over your heels. Then, press through your feet and come back up the same way you went down. Perform 10 reps of this movement 2–3 times.
Bonus: Try These Lower Back Exercises from Dr. Josh Axe!
Best Lower Back Stretches
While lower back exercises are key to a strong back, equally important are lower back stretches. Flexibility and mobility are a major component of a healthy and pain-free body. Tight muscles can shift the alignment of the joints and overtime, can lead to pain. Sciatic nerve pain and piriformis syndrome are the result of nerves being pinched in the lower back. One of the treatment options for both of these issues is stretching.
How do you stretch out the lower back? One effective option is through the practice of yoga. It has been proven that intense stretching and/or yoga can significantly improve chronic lower back pain and even eliminate it. A research team lead by Dr. Karen J. Sherman of the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle found that out of 228 participants, those in both the intense stretching group and the yoga group, found better overall results after three months than the control group. (6) The poses from yoga practice can provide excellent guidance on ways to ease our lower back pain.
Each of these poses targets either the hamstrings, lower back, glutes or a combination those areas. For each postures, breathe deeply while you try to hold the stretch for at least one minute and no more than two.
1. Seated Forward Fold
Sit tall with your legs straight out in front. Curl your toes toward your shin. Reach your arm straight overhead and fold forward. Continue to extend your chest toward your toes. You should feel a stretch in the backs of your legs and/or the lower back.
2. Head to Knee Forward Fold
Sit tall with your legs straight out in front. Bring your right foot to your inner left thigh or knee. Reach your right arm up overhead. Turn your torso to face your left knee and bow forward. Reach for the outside of the left knee, calf or ankle as you fold forward. Continue to reach your chest over your left thigh. This pose will target the right lower back and the left hamstrings. After one minute, switch sides.
3. Cat and Cow
Start on your hands and knees. Press through your palms as you round your upper back. Draw your chin to your chest as you widen your upper back into cat pose. Then, draw your belly button down towards the floor as you draw your shoulder blades together to come into cow pose. Move back and forth between these two poses 10 times.
4. Seated Crossed Leg Forward Fold
Sit with your legs in a comfortable crossed leg position. Sit up tall, reach your arms overhead and then fold forward bringing your hands to the floor. Continue to reach your hands forward as you hold this position for one minute. Then, switch the cross of your legs and repeat.
5. Eye of the Needle
Lie on your back and place your feet flat on the floor. Bring your right foot over and above your left knee. Press your right knee away from your chest and draw your left knee toward you. Thread your right arm through between your legs and grab for the back of your left thigh or the top of your left shin. Draw your left knee in and relax your head and upper back on the floor. Hold this position for one minute, then switch sides.
6. Reclined Spinal Twist
Lie on your back with your leg extended straight on the floor. Draw your right knee toward your chest. Scoot your hips to the right and let your right knee fall to the left. Extend your right arm out to the right. Allow your body to relax into the twist. Hold this pose for one minute, then switch sides.
Lower Back Exercise Protocol and Precautions
When introducing lower back exercises into your weekly routine, there are a few things to consider. First, build up slowly. Incorporate one or two back strengthening exercises into your routine but keep the total rep count low, no more than 50–75 reps to start. As you build strength and awareness during these exercises, you can increase the rep count.
Second, be mindful of any pain you experience. We never want to work through pain, especially when it’s related to your lower back. And third, proper alignment is critical when performing these exercises, especially during squats and deadlifts.
Living with pain is never fun because pain decreases your ability to live your life to the fullest. It can also be an indication of an issue that should no longer be overlooked. We can prevent lower back pain and ultimately the underlying issues that are the cause of that pain through lower back exercises and lower back stretches that we can do at home or at the gym.
These type of exercises are simple and can be done with little to no equipment. And by incorporating a few lower back exercises each week into your daily routine, you can eliminate, reduce and prevent the type of chronic pain that affects millions of people each year.
Read Next: Leg Workouts for Women