Here’s the thing about exercising with back pain: Depending on how you do it, you could end up feeling phenomenally better—or equally worse. How do you ensure it’s the former? Know the best and worst exercises for back pain.
After all, strengthening the muscles that support the spine, getting nutrient-rich blood flow to injured tissues, and promoting healthy mobility and movement patterns is critical to both easing existing back pain and reducing the risk of future flare-ups, explains Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., strength coach and owner of CORE training studio outside Boston.
On the flip side, too much stress on your lower back can injure muscles, ligaments, and tendons and contribute to bulging or herniated discs. That stress is usually due to poor exercise form or joint mobility, Gentilcore says. “Many people are locked up in their mid-back and hips, so they end up compensating during exercises with excessive lumbar flexion,” he explains. “But the lower back isn’t designed for a ton of range of motion.”
To help you capitalize on the benefits of back exercises while avoiding exacerbating any existing issues, here are the five best and worst exercises for a bad back.
The Worst Lower-Body Exercise for Back Pain: Back Squat
Why it can be bad: No, back squats aren’t bad across the board. But pretty much any man who has back pain is sure to set up with troubling back squat form: Elbows cocked back, lower back arched, and butt out. All of this is born out of a lack of shoulder mobility. Without the requisite mobility within the shoulder joint, it’s impossible to get a bar on or across your traps while maintaining a neutral spine. And when one joint lacks mobility, another one picks up the slack. In this case, it’s the pelvis that compensates. The top edge tips forward, prohibiting you from properly bracing your deep-lying core muscles and creating excessive lordosis (inward curve) in the back. This effectively transfers the weight that should be on your core squarely to your unbraced lower back, aggravating existing back pain.
The Best Lower-Body Exercise for Back Pain: Zercher Squat
Why it’s good: If you can’t imagine life without barbell squats, the Zercher squat is a front-loaded variation that allows you to easily maintain a neutral spine while carrying the double benefit of working your stabilizing core muscles to a high degree. The latter is crucial to easing back pain over the long term.
How to do it: Place a foam sleeve over a barbell secured at waist height, hook your elbows under the bar, and pull it tight against your abdomen, elbows tucked into your sides. Brace your core. From here, bend at the hips and knees to squat down as far as comfortable without your form breaking or heels rising from the floor, keeping a relatively upright torso as you do so. At all times, the bar should be directly above your feet. Pause, then drive through your feet to return to standing.
Do 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps. Rest 30 to 90 seconds between sets.
The Worst Abs Exercise for Back Pain: Plank
Why it can be bad: Again, the plank can be a great exercise, but it’s one that the vast majority of exercisers botch. Back-safe planks should be performed with a posterior tilt, meaning your glutes are maximally contracted and tailbone “tucked.” This allows the core, as opposed to the lower-back muscles, to take the brunt of the work.
The Best Abs Exercise for Back Pain: Dead Bug
Why it’s good: Similar to planks, the dead-bug works the transverse abdominis, a deep-lying core muscle that is vital to spine and back health. However, it flips the plank upside-down; performed on your back, it involves actively pressing the lower back into the floor at all times to ensure that no weight is transferred into the back and that you’re more effectively strengthening the TA. No “hanging out” here.
How to do it: Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs extended toward the ceiling. Engage your core to press your lower back firmly into the floor. Maintaining this back position, lower one arm toward the floor behind you and the opposite leg toward the floor in front of you so that they form one straight line, parallel to the floor. Pause, then squeeze through the abs to raise both back toward the ceiling. Repeat on the opposite side.
Do 3 to 4 sets of AMQRAP (as many quality reps as possible) per side. Rest 30 to 90 seconds between sets.
The Worst Lower-Back Exercise for Back Pain: Superman
Why it can be bad: Actively strengthening the muscles of the lower back can be a beneficial strategy for easing back pain. However, for anyone with a bulging or herniated disc in the lower back, the superman exercise can further compress compromised discs. As is the case with all of the worst exercises for a bad back, lackluster form contributes to the potential issues here. “Dumping” your weight into your lower back, as opposed to actively lifting through the legs and shoulders, can stress the structures surrounding your lumbar spine.
The Best Lower-Back Exercise for Back Pain: Bird Dog
Why it’s good: This yoga-born exercise strengthens all 360 degrees of the core, including all of the back, while keeping the spine in a neutral position. It prioritizes the maintenance of total-body tension and develops the stability needed to protect the back during everyday activities.
How to do it: Come into a tabletop position with your hands directly below your shoulders and knees directly below your hips. Pin your lats back, actively press your hands and knees into the floor, and brace your core. Keeping everything engaged and without sinking your hips back toward your heels, raise one hand and the opposite leg to form a straight line, parallel to the floor. Keep the torso completely still without leaning or wobbling. Pause, then lower both limbs to the floor and repeat on the other side.
Do 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps. Rest 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
The Worst Shoulder Exercises for Back Pain: Shoulder Press
Why it can be bad: As with back squats, when performing the shoulder press, poor shoulder mobility can cause exercisers to “dump” the weight into their lower back. However, with this exercise, even those with good shoulder mobility are likely to unconsciously arch their back. Why? Because it makes the exercise easier and allows you to push more weight, turning a vertical press into an incline one.
The Best Shoulder Exercises for Back Pain: Prone I, Y, T
Why it’s good: This low-weight (or bodyweight) drill is harder than it looks, targeting the rhomboids, rear deltoids, and rotator cuff muscles to both strengthen and unlock superior shoulder mobility—so you don’t have to swear off shoulder presses forever.
How to do it: Lie face-down on the floor with your neck in neutral and your arms extended straight above your head on the floor with a neutral wrist position, thumbs facing the ceiling. Keeping your torso in contact with the floor, moving at the shoulder joint, and pinching both shoulder blades together, raise both arms toward the ceiling as high as possible, pause, then lower back toward the floor. That’s I. Perform with your arms diagonally overhead in a Y position, and then straight out to the sides in a T.
Do 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 rounds. Rest 30 to 60 seconds between sets.
The Worst Total-Body Exercise for Back Pain: Deadlift
Why it can be bad: A properly performed deadlift is arguably the best exercise ever (more on that next), but technique errors can make the deadlift easily one of the worst exercises for a bad back. The most common issues causing back pain: allowing the lower back to dip, the upper back to round, or the bar to travel away from the legs, rather than close up against them.
The Best Total-Body Exercise for Back Pain: Deadlift
Why it’s good: Yep, a deadlift performed with bad form can be extremely problematic, but one executed with a focus on maintaining a braced, neutral torso, and a controlled bar both can strengthen the entire back, core, and posterior chain to ease chronic back pain.
How to do it: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, and grab a loaded barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart, positioned just outside of your legs. Hinge your hips back behind you and brace your core to set up with the bar directly above your feet, about an inch in front of your shins, which should be vertical. Make sure your hips are above your knees, and you should feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings. Engage your lats to pull your shoulder blades down and back and create tension through your torso. From here, drive through your heels to push the floor away, standing up as tall as possible and locking your hips out at the tip. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return the bar to the floor, maintaining the same level of tension as you go.
Make it easier: If you’re new to the deadlift, start with dumbbells (shown above) or kettlebells. You can even set the weights on a box or step so you don’t have to bend over so far, thereby reducing the chances you’ll arch your back.
Do 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 8 reps. Rest 2:00 to 2:30 minutes between sets.
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