Exercises for low back pain: Benefits, types, and tips for best results
The science is clear. Exercise is vital for recovering from lower back pain and preventing it in the future.
Knowing what exercises to do, which to avoid, and how to do them without worsening your pain can be challenging to figure out on your own.
This article will give you four simple exercises that can help ease your lower back pain, along with tips and advice to get the most out of your rehab.
First, we’ll explain why exercise works for lower back pain, what exercises are best, and how to choose the best exercise for you.
Benefits of exercise for lower back pain
Like any other part of your body, your spine needs movement to heal, strengthen, and support you effectively.
Exercise is important for low back pain recovery because it helps to:
- Increase blood flow and nutrition to your spinal joints and surrounding structures
- Strengthen your spinal muscles
- Increase your back mobility
- Improve your general posture and balance
It also stimulates the release of endorphins (the hormones that make us feel better and reduce stress), which decreases your body’s threat response and reduces pain.
If you’d like to learn more about how your internal threat responses connect to low back pain, our article on persistent pain covers this in detail.
What are the best exercises for low back pain?
There’s no best exercise for low back pain
According to research, no type of exercise is most effective for resolving lower back pain. Instead, a wide variety of exercises can help ease the pain and prevent it from recurring.
Specific types of exercises can result in certain benefits, for example:
- Core exercises, like Pilates - can help improve your back’s strength and stability
- Flexibility or range of motion exercises, like Yoga - can help free up your back movement
- Aerobic exercises, like running - help increase blood flow and nutrients to your back tissues, assisting with injury healing and reducing associated stiffness and pain
Other examples of helpful exercises for low back pain are strength training, motor control exercises, deep water running, and walking.
Tailored exercises work best
With low back pain, the type of exercise doesn’t seem to matter as much as tailoring your exercises. Tailored exercises are exercises matched to your stage of recovery, activity needs, and personal preferences.
Most experts agree that tailored exercise is key to a positive, long-term impact on lower back pain, regardless of your exercise choice.
Acute vs. persistent low back pain exercises
We usually manage acute and persistent pain differently because the stage of healing requires a different approach. We explain the different types of pain and their stages in our lower back pain overview article.
Exercises for acute lower back pain
Research shows acute lower back pain (pain that has been present for 6 weeks or less) often improves with or without treatment. So, avoiding bed rest and continuing your daily activities is usually enough to recover.
Exercises such as low-intensity stretching and range motion exercises can be beneficial in addressing muscle tightness and stiffness.
But, if you exercise with a new back injury, avoiding targeted lower back exercises in the first two weeks is best. That’s because it can irritate your healing back tissues and slow your recovery.
Persistent low back pain exercises
Conversely, with persistent lower back pain (pain you’ve had for more than 12 weeks), experts agree that exercise therapy is vital to help you reduce the pain and recover fully.
For best results, your exercise(s) should form part of a comprehensive rehab program and be something you enjoy.
Back pain exercises produce the best results when they are:
These factors help increase your chances of sticking to your exercises, which means the best long-term results.
What to expect during lower back pain rehab
What to expect during lower back pain rehab
Recovery never follows a linear path, so your pain will likely flare up occasionally. Sometimes it may be related to activities you’ve done, and other times; it may have no apparent cause.
Tip: If your pain flares up, the key is to keep moving but ease off on the intensity. We have discussed how to handle flare-ups in this article.
With regular exercises and following the right rehab advice, you should notice a gradual improvement in your lower back pain over time. In addition, your strength and endurance should also increase.
Tip: If you’ve had no improvement in your pain with exercises or are worried about it, consult a healthcare professional. They can give you more advice, check that your exercises are optimal for you, and set your mind and ease.
How much pain is OK when exercising with low back pain?
Doing exercises and working out with low back pain can seem scary, but when you use your pain as a tool to guide you through rehab, it becomes less daunting. The following 3 steps can help you do this:
1. First, know your baseline pain levels
When you injure your lower back, you typically feel some level of discomfort and pain even when you don’t do exercises. That is your baseline pain level. Throughout the day, your pain levels can fluctuate from your baseline, depending on what you do.
2. Then, monitor pain changes from your baseline
Keep track of any changes from your baseline and use this to decide whether to continue an exercise, adjust it, or do something different. Research shows that it’s usually OK to feel some level of pain when working out or after an exercise session, as long as the discomfort:
- Is less than 3/10 (where 0 is no pain and 10 is intense pain), AND
- settles back down to your baseline level within a few hours after your session, AND
- doesn't cause an increase in your baseline symptoms the next day.
You should keep your pain within this comfortable range by adjusting your exercises.
3. Finally, adjust your exercises according to the pain
If your symptoms increase more than they should, you should reduce your exercise intensity. It usually takes some experimenting to find the right level of exercise for your lower back.
As a result, we recommend starting at low levels and increasing your exercise intensity gradually. That way, you’re less likely to aggravate your pain and more likely to stay on track with your recovery.
Now, we can move on to four commonly recommended exercises for low back pain. Have a look at the Back Pain rehab plan in the Exakt Health app if you would like a more complete rehab program that tailors exercises in response to your feedback.
4 Simple exercises to help with lower back pain
Below are examples of 4 lower back pain exercises you can start with today to help relieve your pain. These are beginner exercises, so it’s important to progress them as you improve and get stronger.
This exercise teaches you how to move your spine one segment at a time. It also helps improve spinal joint and muscle circulation, which improves healing and reduces pain and stiffness
- Support yourself on your hands and knees, positioning your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
- Place your lower back in a neutral position, and lengthen your neck to form a straight line with the rest of your spine.
- Curl your spine in sequence from your tailbone to your head.
- Start by tightening your stomach muscles, tilting your pelvis (as if you’re "tucking your tail between your legs”), and rounding your lower back.
- Continue curling your spine, rounding through your middle and upper back, and finally, dropping your head toward the floor until your whole spine forms an arc (the “angry cat”).
- Now, reverse the movement.
- Start by tilting your head toward the ceiling, then dropping (extending) your upper back, middle back, and lower back toward the floor. Finally, point your tailbone toward the ceiling until your spine forms a hollow (the “camel”).
- Breathe normally throughout the movement and keep your shoulders relaxed.
- Repeat 10 times.
Tip: Don't hold your breath; breathe normally throughout the exercise.
2. Rib closure (with moving arms)
This exercise strengthens your core and teaches you to keep control over your spinal position while simultaneously breathing, moving your arms, and tightening your core muscles.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Tighten your stomach muscles and press your lower and mid-back into the floor.
- Now, slowly lift your arms above your head. You may notice your lower rib cage lifting up as they move up; try to resist this by tightening your stomach muscles and keeping your rib cage down.
- Once your arms are overhead, pause to breathe in and out. Then, check that your rib cage is still down. If not, reset it by tightening your stomach muscles before moving your arms down.
- Move your arms back down.
- Aim to do 6 repetitions, but don’t force it. If this is difficult, do as many as possible while maintaining good form. Then add more repetitions as you get stronger.
- Rest for 60 seconds.
- Do 3 sets.
Tip: It’s essential that you can breathe normally while contracting your stomach muscles. So, take the time to practice this skill when your arms are overhead and when you’re actively keeping your rib cage down.
3. Spine curl
This exercise strengthens your back and gluteal muscles and helps improve your back circulation and mobility.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet close to your bottom.
- Place your arms relaxed at your side.
- Place a small pillow under your head if it makes you feel more comfortable.
- Start by gently contracting your stomach muscles, tilting your pelvis backward, and pressing your lower back into the floor.
- Now, lift your hips into the bridge position by moving one segment at a time. First, lift your bottom off the floor, then your lower and middle back.
- Lift only as high as is comfortable for you.
- Aim to eventually get your body into a relatively straight line, but avoid lifting too high - keep the pressure off your neck.
- Hold the position for 10 seconds, then curl down in sequence.
- Start by placing your middle back down first, then your lower back, and finally, your bottom.
- Rest for 10 to 20 seconds.
- Aim to do 10 repetitions, but don’t force it. If this is difficult, do as many as possible while maintaining good form. Then add more repetitions as you get stronger.
Tip: If your back hurts during this movement, you may be trying to exaggerate the curl too much, or you’re lifting too high. Do less of a curl and only raise a little off the floor.
4. Knee hugs
This stretch can help make your back and gluteal muscles feel more comfortable when back pain causes them to become stiff and sore.
- Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
- Place a pillow under your head if you struggle to get your upper back and neck flat on the floor comfortably.
- Hug one knee to your chest and hold it there for 5 seconds.
- Then release it and hug the other knee to your chest for 5 seconds.
- Finally, hug both knees to your chest together and hold the position for up to 20 seconds.
- All 3 should take a total of 30 seconds.
Tip: Be gentle. Over-stretching can make it feel more uncomfortable.
When it comes to lower back pain, exercises are essential to recovery. Selecting exercise activities you enjoy, doing them consistently, and working with your pain to adapt and progress them correctly will ensure the best results.
Though you can expect flare-ups throughout your rehab, overall, you should notice your low back pain gradually decreasing and strength and endurance increasing.
If you don’t recover as expected with exercises, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional for further assessment.
Good luck with your recovery!