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Exercises for low back pain: Benefits, types, and tips for best results

The best exercises for lower back pain.
Kim Van Deventer
Kim Van Deventer
Mar 20, 2024
Medically reviewed by
Maryke Louw
Here are 4 lower back pain exercises you can start with today, what else might work, and how to use pain to guide your rehab.

These are beginner exercises, so it's important to progress them as you improve and get stronger.

Don't like these types of exercises?

No problem! Research shows that many types of exercise can help lower back pain. We discuss this in detail below.

1. Cat/Camel

Benefits of the Cat/Camel exercise include:

  • Teaching you how to move your spine one segment at a time
  • Improving spinal joint and muscle circulation, which improves healing and reduces pain and stiffness

2. Rib Closure (with moving arms)

Benefits of the Rib Closure exercise include:

  • Strengthening your core muscles
  • Teaching you to keep control over your spinal position while simultaneously breathing, moving your arms, and tightening your core

3. Spine Curl Bridge

Benefits of the Spine Curl Bridge exercise include:

  • Strengthening your back and gluteal muscles
  • Improving your back's mobility
  • Increasing your back's circulation, improving pain and healing

4. Knee Hugs

Benefits of the Knee Hug exercise include:

  • Relaxing your back and gluteal muscles when back pain causes them to become stiff and sore

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.

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Evidence-based rehab plans for Lower Back Pain
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Woman using the exercises in the Exakt Health app to treat her lower back pain

What other types of exercise can work for lower back pain?

Let's first look at why exercise works for lower back pain. Then you'll better understand how to choose the best exercise for you.

How exercise benefits 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.

Exercise of any type causes your brain to release endorphins, which helps decrease pain.
Exercise of any type causes your brain to release endorphins, which helps decrease 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 and general strength training, like Pilates or weight training - can help improve your back's strength and stability and increase circulation
  • Flexibility or range of motion exercises, like Yoga or simple stretches - can help free up your back movement
  • Aerobic exercise, like swimming, walking, or running - helps increase blood flow and nutrients to your back tissues, assisting with injury healing and reducing associated stiffness and pain
Many different types of exercise can help lower back pain. What's important is that it must be tailored to suit your specific case.
Many different types of exercise can help lower back pain. What's important is that it must be tailored to suit your specific case.

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.

This means you can achieve the same results by doing regular gym workouts, Pilates, or simple exercises at home, as long as they are tailored to your specific circumstances.

For example, recent back sprains or strains usually do better if you:

  • Postpone starting exercises that target the injured area for a week or so. That's because it can irritate your healing back tissues and slow your recovery.
  • But remain active within your limits of pain.

In contrast, back pain that has been present for several weeks usually does well with targeted exercises.

Back pain exercises produce the best results when they are...

The exercises must start at an easy level that matches your injury's current stage of healing. They must then increase in intensity and volume as you get stronger and heal.
They must adapt to your changing environment, capabilities, and needs.
If they're not fun, you won't stick to them.
Your workouts must slot into your everyday life relatively easily.

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.

Take note of how different activities affect your back pain.
Take note of how different activities affect your back pain.

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:

  1. Is less than 3/10 (where 0 is no pain and 10 is intense pain), AND
  2. settles back down to your baseline level within a few hours after your session, AND
  3. 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 your 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.

We recommend starting with easy exercises 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.

What to expect during lower back pain rehab

Recovery never follows a straight line of improvement. Instead, you can expect good days and bad ones.

Knowing what to expect and how to react to these changing circumstances will help you stay motivated and on track.

Recovery from any type of injury usually includes a mix of good and bad days.
Recovery from any type of injury usually includes a mix of good and bad days.


Your back pain will likely flare up occasionally. Sometimes, it may be related to activities you've done. 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.

Gradual improvement

Recovering from lower back pain usually takes 6 to 12 weeks, sometimes a bit longer. So don't lose hope if you're still experiencing discomfort after a few weeks.

With regular exercise 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 will 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 your situation, and set your mind at ease.

More about back pain

Back pain exercises for runners

The Exakt Health app offers personalized exercise guidance and evidence-based tips for smoothly and effectively managing lower back pain in runners.

You can start using it at any stage of your recovery, and the app will adjust to your current condition, helping you progress towards a full return to running.

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Male runner using the exercises in the Exakt Health app to manage his lower back injury.
Kim Van Deventer
Kim Van Deventer
Kim Van Deventer is a freelance healthcare writer and digital content strategist for healthcare businesses and medical content agencies. She has a BSc in Physiotherapy and worked as a physiotherapist for more than 14 years, specialising in sports injury rehabilitation, chronic pain management, and women's health. Kim combines her clinical experience and digital marketing skills to create relevant and helpful content that improves patients' lives.
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