The Best and Worst Exercises for Your Back

By Laura Newcomer |

Get lasting relief from lower back pain with this helpful guide.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably dealt with back pain. In fact, if you can read, you’ve probably dealt with back pain. Research shows more than 80 percent of the population will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives.

“Lower back pain is often a result of our lifestyles,” says Maxine Yeung, M.S., R.D., founder of The Wellness Whisk. A few of the causes: sitting in front of a computer most of the day, poor posture, being overweight or obese, and lack of adequate physical activity, she says.

Getting older doesn’t help. “As we age, our bones and discs begin to degenerate,” Yeung says, “which can increase our risk of developing osteoarthritis, bulging discs, and spinal stenosis.”

No matter the cause, you don’t have to sit back and endure the pain. Incorporating certain exercises into your routine—and steering clear of others—can help you accommodate and even improve your symptoms.

Here are the dos and don’ts of working out to protect your back.

The Best Exercises for a Bad Back

Anyone suffering from back pain or stiffness should work to improve both their strength and flexibility, says Lisa Woods, a personal trainer and yoga teacher in Colorado.

When it comes to building strength, Woods recommends focusing on your core. “Doing abdominal exercises can be very helpful in reducing back pain because it provides support to the spinal muscles,” she says.

But remember: Your core extends far beyond your abs. The four exercises below help strengthen the core muscles in your back, too.

1. Seated Row

Tie a resistance band around your feet when you’re seated with legs extended and your back straight. If you can’t easily get down on the floor, sit in a chair and anchor the band higher.

Grab the two ends of the band, palms facing each other, and extend your arms forward. Pull the band straight back until your hands reach the sides of your ribs, squeezing your shoulder blades together as you do so. You can also perform rows with a cable machine at the gym. Aim for three sets of 10 reps.

2. Pelvic Tilt

Lying on your back, bend both knees and place feet flat on the floor hip-width apart. Flatten your lower back against the floor by tightening your abdominal muscles and bending your pelvis up slightly. Hold for up to 10 seconds. Release and repeat for 10 to 12 reps total.

3. Bridge Pose

Lying on your back, bend both knees and place feet flat on the floor hip-width apart. Slide your arms alongside your body with palms facing down. Press the feet into the floor, and lift your hips up, rolling the spine off the floor. Lightly squeeze the knees together to keep the knees hip-width apart.

Press down into your arms and shoulders to lift the chest up. Hold this position for four to eight breaths. To release, exhale and slowly roll the spine back to the floor. Repeat for three to five reps total.

4. Bird Dog Pose

Start on your hands and knees with your palms flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart. Your neck should be in line with your back, and your gaze should be down or slightly forward. Brace your core, and raise your left arm and right leg until they’re in line with your body. If that’s too challenging, only raise your leg. Either way, hold for five to 10 seconds, and then return to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side (right arm and left leg) to complete one rep. Aim for five to seven reps total.

If you prefer group fitness classes to solo strength sessions, Pilates and barre are both great options for developing core strength, Yeung says. Just be sure to inform your teacher of any back issues so you can discuss appropriate modifications.

Don’t Forget Flexibility

Developing core strength is key for protecting your back, but it’s only one part of the pain-free puzzle. “The ideal exercise routine for a bad back combines strength-building exercises with flexibility training,” Woods says. “Improving flexibility can boost range of motion and balance, both important factors in injury prevention.”

Woods recommends the following three exercises:

1. Gentle Twist

Sit with legs crossed in front of you. If your hips are very tight, you can sit on a bolster or block. Align your head, neck, and spine. Place your right hand on the floor behind you. Bring your left hand to the outside of your right knee, gently twisting to the right. Inhale to lengthen your spine, and exhale to twist deeper. Gaze over your right shoulder. Hold for 10 breaths, and return to center. Change the cross of your legs and twist to the opposite side.

Cautionary note: Those with chronic back pain, back injuries, or degenerative disk disease should approach this pose with caution and under the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable instructor.

2. Gentle Yoga Back Bend (Modified Camel Pose)

Begin by kneeling upright with your knees hip-width apart. Rest your hands on the back of your pelvis, with your fingers pointing to the floor. Lengthen your tailbone down toward the floor and widen the back of your pelvis. Carefully lean back, with your chin slightly tucked toward your chest. Stay here, keeping your hands on your back pelvis. Think about lifting up through your pelvis, keeping your lower spine long. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

To release, bring your hands back to your front hips. Inhale, lead with your heart, and lift your torso by pushing your hips down toward the floor.

3. Sphinx Pose

Lie facedown with your legs extended behind you, hip-width apart. Press the tops of your feet into the mat or floor and spread your toes. Do not tuck your toes, as this can crunch your spine. Bring your arms up and rest your elbows under your shoulders with your forearms on the floor, parallel to each other. Inhale as you press your forearms into the floor, and lift your head and chest off the floor. Press your pubic bone into the floor, and engage your legs.

Keep your elbows tucked into your sides, drop your shoulder blades down your back, and draw your chest forward. Hold for up to 10 breaths. To release, exhale as you slowly lower your torso, chest, and head to the floor. Relax your arms at your sides. Turn your head to the side and rest quietly.

It may take a little trial and error to learn the best strength and flexibility exercises for you, but it’s worth it. And once you do, consistency is key.

“Oftentimes I see people have an injury, do physical therapy, feel better, and then stop with their exercises because they think they’re fixed,” Yeung says. That’s a bad idea. To prevent relapse, these exercises should be done long term.

Now, what shouldn’t you do?

The Worst Exercises for a Bad Back

First, a general rule: Avoid any exercise that causes pain, Yeung says. More specifically, steer clear of the following:

  • Contact sports or high-impact sports like running, which may aggravate back pain or result in additional injuries
  • Sports that involve quick movements and twisting, such as tennis or golf, which can stress the spinal joints
  • Heavy lifting, which can escalate back pain by compressing the discs or stressing the spinal joints
  • Sit-ups and leg lifts, which can put a lot of pressure on the lower back and may cause unnecessary arching or straining if you lack adequate core strength
  • Excessive bending like toe touches, which can place undue strain on the back
  • Exercises that require forward flexion for long periods of time, such as cycling

While not recommended, if you are going to perform any of the activities above, you can help protect your back by moving slowly, engaging the abdominal muscles, and resting frequently, Woods says.

The bottom line: Developing a consistent fitness routine that combines core strengthening exercises, flexibility training, and low-impact cardio such as swimming or walking will help protect your back and alleviate pain now and later.

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