Some sources estimate that about 80% of adults will experience back pain at some point in their life, making it one of the most common medical conditions today. Sure, there are common narratives of people “throwing out” their backs when lifting something heavy, which has led to the whole “lift with your legs” movement. There probably isn’t one universal cause for all chronic back pain, and it’s not super helpful for me to sit here and speculate probable causes. Instead, I’m going to discuss the 5 most useful movements and exercises that you can do right now to help alleviate your back pain, and even prevent it from even occurring in the first place.
1. Glute Bridges
Definitely a classic at this point, glute bridges are a staple exercise for strengthening the stability about the hips and low back. Be sure to flatten the low back against the ground using the abdominals before thrusting the hips upward. Start with a set of 12-15 reps and repeat 2-3 times.
2. Sidelying clams
Walk into any PT clinic and you’ll see at least a couple patients doing this one, and for good reason too. The glute muscles are key to stabilizing the hips and relieving pressure from the low back. By performing the clam in a side-lying position, the gluteus medius (an otherwise underutilized muscle important for lateral stability) is integrated as a major player in the movement. Aim to use a fairly easy resistance band, and start with 15 reps on each side. Repeat for another set or 2 depending on fatigue.
3. Dead bugs
Dead bugs are an easy method for working the transverse abdominis, a deeper stabilizer of the core that works to stabilize the spine. Similar to the glute bridge, you want to be sure to flatten your low back against the ground before starting the exercise. The key here is to maintain contact between the ground and your low back for the entire movement. Focus on that squeeze through the belly button as you slowly straighten each leg and lower the heel to the ground. Try short sets here of only 5-8 reps at first to be sure you are maintaining proper form, but increase reps as needed. Repeat for 2-3 sets total.
I can’t tell you how frequently people cringe when I recommend this exercise to help with their back pain. We all know a guy who threw his back out deadlifting. But, no one ever asks that guy what his form looked like. This is the best exercise for strengthening the stability in the back, something that is probably on the weaker side if you’re experiencing back pain. The important focus when doing a deadlift is maintaining proper form: the back is secured in a straight, neutral posture, the movement is coming only from sliding the hips back, and the shoulders are anchored (squeeze your armpits). Start with little to no weight and practice the movement through a pain-free range of motion until you can perform the entire range of motion without pain. Increase weight conservatively, and keep your sets to 10 reps or less to preserve good technique.
5. The “Pallof Press”
Named after physical therapist and strength coach John Pallof, the Pallof Press is an anti-rotation exercise that strengthens the stabilizing core and hip musculature against a rotational force. Rotational movements often are weaker points for our trunk, and leave us vulnerable for “tweak” type injuries. This exercise, being anti-rotational by its nature, is focused on resisting a rotational force using our core muscles. Start with a very light resistance, and bring the handle to your midline. Press the handle out in front of you so that your arms are extended, and hold it there for 5 seconds. Pull the handle back toward your chest, then repeat the forward press and hold. Remember to breathe throughout the exercise. Aim to repeat the press and hold for 10-20 reps and adjust the weight as needed. Pregnant mothers and those with heart conditions should avoid the hold portion of the movement, and repeat just for repetitions.
The above exercises have proven useful for coping with back pain for myself and my clients, and hopefully you will find them to be just as helpful. If your pain persists or worsens, see a qualified health care provider for further treatment. Always be sure to obtain clearance from a health care provider before beginning an exercise program. If you found this article helpful, please share it with someone else you know who suffers from back pain!