Back Exercises to Strengthen Your Body and Prevent Pain

Back exercises to relieve pain and strengthen all over

Say it with us: Don’t skip your back exercises.

With so much time spent slumped over our computers, phone screens, or on the couch, it’s no wonder that half of all working Americans experience lower back pain each year. And while many of us choose to opt out of fitness classes until the aches subside, at-home back workouts to strengthen your muscles (without worsening the pain) may actually be the best remedy for lasting results.

“A lot of people don’t know how to train their lower back,” says our expert Strength and Power instructor Kat S. “So I actually really encourage those who have mild back pain or discomfort to strength train. It’s one of the best things they can do.”

To take the guesswork out of what’s good for you (and what’s not), we asked Kat and strength-building pro Dorian C. for a rundown of safe exercises, stretches, and modifications for back pain. Ready to dive right in? This 11-Minute Express Lower Back Strength class with Kat is a must-do.

1. Don’t Push It: Pain vs. Discomfort

Before jumping into any kind of exercise, Kat has a golden rule: “If it’s painful, don’t do it. If it’s uncomfortable, that’s a sign your muscles need to get stronger.”

Sharp, stabbing sensations or muscle spasms that prevent you from moving are a definite red light. For these cases, consult your doctor and don’t push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

But unless you’ve experienced a specific injury, lack of strength is the most common source of lower back pain. Training your back will alleviate discomfort, improve your posture, and make the everyday movements of life easier (goodbye, pregnancy and age-related back pain), says Kat.

2. Go For Strength-based Back Exercises

If you’re unsure about which obé class to take on your achy days, choose a strength-building option (Strength, Barre, Pilates, or Sculpt). This type of slow-and-steady resistance training builds resilience in your back and forces you into positions that require a high degree of mobility, stretching the muscle as you work it—an instant win-win.

“After the legs, your back muscles are the largest muscles in the body,” adds Dorian. “Training them expends a lot of energy and helps maintain body composition, prevents injury, and supports a good posture.” It also seriously boosts overall workout performance. “You can only go so far if your back is weak,” says Kat. “If it’s strong, the sky’s the limit.”

As for weights, if you’re experienced and can maintain proper form, keep lifting them (so long as they’re manageable). But to stay safe, Dorian suggests avoiding overhead presses, shoulder presses, and kettlebell swings—which can all add excess strain.

And FYI: It’s more than okay to “feel” your back during exercises, especially if you’re new to working out, says Kat. “Those muscles that run down your back are a lot more superficial compared to your abs or glutes. If you’re feeling them, that’s a good thing, because you know you’re making them stronger.”

3. Start With These Back-Friendly Exercises

To get your back strong AF, it’s all about building a progression. Start on the floor, where you can focus on acing isometric holds. Then, when you feel confident, level up to more loaded movements which introduce tension (the good, strength-building kind) to the spine.

  • Level One: Build your tolerance with Kat’s first test—a prone back extension (lying face-down). “Everyone should be able to hold that for two minutes without stopping or feeling pain,” says Kat. Dorian also suggests everyone’s favorite booty builder—glute bridges.
  • Level Two: To activate the full length of the spine, build mobility, and develop an awareness of your back, try a segmental cat-cow. For an added challenge, Dorian recommends a suitcase march.
  • Level Three: When you’re ready to kick it up a gear, seated or standing good mornings or Romanian deadlifts will not just target your glutes and hamstrings, but also force your lower back muscles to fire and grow stronger.

4. Don’t Forget the Core

Newsflash: “The core plays a major role in spinal support,” says Dorian. “The core and back muscles are the trunk of the body—and both work together to keep the spine stable and healthy.” So while abs are often our biggest fixation, your best bet is to holistically train your whole trunk with these exercises.

  • Goblet squat (with elevated heels): You’ll teach your back how to hold itself up (without stressing it), and fire up your abs. Use dumbbells or a yoga block to elevate your heels while squatting.
  • Push-ups: However you feel about them, they work your strength and stability big time, says Dorian.
  • Moving swimmer: Another double-whammy? Kat’s “moving swimmer.” Lay belly down, swim your hands to your lower back so that your shoulder blades touch, then swim them to touch in front of you.
  • Pillar: For an added challenge, anti-rotation exercises like this plank modification are killer for building core strength. Put your forearms on the ground, then tap the floor in front of you one hand at a time without shifting your hips.
  • Hollow rock: Super simple and seriously effective, this balance challenge forces you to keep a neutral spice and stabilize with your core. It’s also a perfect precursor to more complex back-building exercises like pull-ups or hanging leg raises—Dorian’s powerhouse moves.
  • Bent-over row: Turn on those rhomboids, traps, and lats. This versatile exercise can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, or resistance bands, and isolates your entire back.

5. Stretch It Out

After all that hard work, your muscles deserve a good stretch—which also reduces tension in your spine-supporting muscles, increases your range of motion, and reduces the risk of future strain. Segmental cat-cows, cobras (or sphinx), bird-dogs, and anything that stretches your hips—figure four, pigeon, or a kneeling hip flexor stretch—can provide feel-good relief, say Dorian and Kat.

“A lot of the time, low back issues are related to tight hips, because those muscles pull on your back and put it into a compensatory position. Stretching them is one of the best things you can do to also help mitigate back pain,” explains Kat.

Your foam roller can also be a big help, says Dorian, who recommends using it with a pelvic tilt or a side-lying thoracic rotation stretch. Go here for our favorite foam-rolling classes!

Moves to Avoid With Back Pain

When our back isn’t at its strongest, our bodies tend to overcompensate with other muscle groups, which can sacrifice form and reinforce improper technique. Keep an eye out for these usual suspects during class—and learn how to modify them.

  • Squats: Kat says they’re a common pain point for anyone with back discomfort. The quick form-correcting fix you’ll often see in her own Power classes? Elevate your heels, drive the knees over your toes and stay upright instead of bowing forward.
  • Planks: For any plank variations, find a chair, bench, or table to incline your hands. Planks are powerful strength builders, so unless you’re feeling pain, find a modification that works for you instead of nixing them altogether.
  • High-Impact Classes: Thinking about a HIIT or Power class? Try to avoid anything where there’s a high degree of impact, like burpees, tuck-jumps, or long runs, Kat recommends. To satisfy any high-intensity cravings, make sure to go at a slower pace that puts you in control of the movement—and to be safe, go for low-impact HIIT classes.

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