Your risk of debilitating back pain rises with age. Here’s how to protect your spine—and your quality of life.
Ask five different people if they experience back pain, and there’s a good chance four of them will say yes.
That’s right: Nearly 80 percent of Americans experience back pain at some point in their lives, according to a Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science review. And while it can affect people of all ages, the risk of pain that limits your day-to-day function and quality of life increases as you get older.
This happens for a few reasons, including poor posture, lack of adequate physical activity, and a decline in strength—especially in the muscles that make up your core. Why is your core so critical to back health?
“If you look at the body, there are no bones, apart from the spine, between the pelvis and rib cage,” explains Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer and author of Smarter Workouts. “Only core muscles support that part of the spine.”
If your core muscles become weak, you may experience overuse pain, McCall says. Plus, a weak core means more force is loaded onto the spine, which increases your risk of disc bulges, nerve damage, and pain.
“Having a strong core is like wearing a protective weight belt all of the time,” McCall says.
Science agrees. A 2017 study found that performing core stabilization exercises, like plank or side plank, for six weeks was more effective at reducing symptoms of lower back pain than traditional physical therapy.
What’s more, performing core exercises helps improve balance and stability, which is necessary to prevent injuries that can trigger back pain flare-ups, says Marie Urban, a personal trainer and group training coordinator at Life Time.
How to Use These Core Exercises for Back Pain
To prevent—or combat—lower back pain, integrate the six core exercises below into your weekly routine. You can pick three or four moves to add to your normal workout, or do one set of all six exercises in order as a part of your warmup. The latter approach will help activate your core and prepare your body for safe exercise.
As always, safety is key. The exercises here may be different or more advanced than those you’ll experience in a SilverSneakers class. If you have a chronic condition (including osteoporosis), balance issues, or injuries, talk to your doctor about how you can exercise safely.
Can’t get down on the floor? Check out this 10-minute seated core workout.
Core Exercise #1: Bent-Arm Plank
Do 3 to 4 sets of a 30-second hold
Lie on your stomach on the floor with your elbows directly underneath your shoulders and forearms flat on the floor. Focus your eyes between your hands. Your legs should be resting behind you, knees hip-width apart (or slightly farther apart for extra balance).
From here, lift your hips toward the ceiling until your body forms a straight line from head to ankles, and squeeze your upper back, core, and glutes. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Do three to four sets, resting 30 to 60 seconds in between.
Make it easier: Hold your plank as long as possible, rest, and repeat until you reach 30 seconds total. Or do the move with your knees on the floor, and lift your hips so your body forms a straight line from head to knees.
Core Exercise #2: Dead Bug
Do 6 to 8 reps
Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your bent legs up so that your knees are stacked over your hips, keeping a 90-degree bend in your knees. Brace your core to press your low back into the floor; make sure to maintain this flat-back position throughout the entire exercise. With your palms facing each other, bring arms up to point toward the ceiling.
Straighten your left leg and bring it toward the floor (try not to let it touch). At the same time, bring your right arm back toward the floor (try not to let it touch). Pause, then bring your arm and leg back to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side with right leg and left arm extended. That’s one rep. Alternate sides for six to eight reps total.
Core Exercise #3: Side Plank
Do 2 sets of a 30-second hold per side
Lie on your left side with your legs extended and hips stacked. Prop your upper body up on your left elbow and forearm. Your left elbow should be bent 90 degrees and be positioned directly under your shoulder.
Brace your core by contracting your abs forcefully as if you were about to be punched in the gut. Raise your hips until your body forms a straight line from your ankles to your shoulders. Hold this position for 30 seconds, or as long as you can.
Switch sides so that you’re lying on your right side, and repeat. Do two sets on each side (30-second hold = one set), resting 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
Make it easier: Hold your side plank as long as possible, rest, and repeat until you reach 30 seconds total. Or do the move with your knees bent 90 degrees and your bottom knee on the floor. Lift your hips so your body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees.
Core Exercise #4: Bird Dog
Do 6 to 8 reps
Start on all fours with your hands below shoulders and knees below hips. Engage your abs, keep your spine neutral, and gaze down or slightly forward.
Lift your left arm and extend your right leg until they are in line with the rest of your body. Pause, then lower back down, and repeat on the opposite side with right arm and left leg extended. That’s one rep. Perform six to eight reps total.
Make it easier: Keep your hands on the floor, and only extend your leg.
Core Exercise #5: Modified Curlup
Do 4 to 6 reps per side
Lie on your back with your left leg straight and right knee bent so that your foot is flat on the floor. Place your hands, palms down, underneath the arch in your lower back for support. Brace your core.
Engage your abs to pull your head and shoulders just a couple of inches off the floor. Hold for up to 10 seconds, slowly breathing the entire time. Release to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform four to six reps, then repeat on the opposite side with right leg straight and left knee bent.
Core Exercise #6: Superman
Do 8 to 10 reps
Lie on your stomach on the floor with your arms and legs extended so your body forms a long, straight line.
In one controlled movement, engage your core, lower back, and glutes to gently raise your arms, chest, and legs a few inches off the floor. Hold for two to five seconds, then slowly lower to return to the starting position. That’s one rep. Perform eight to 10 reps total.
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