What is the best back exercise? And how does it work to relieve and even prevent back pain?
If you suffer from back pain, you have probably discovered that there are no magic solutions, no quick and easy answers. I spent several frustrating and painful years searching for a solution to my back pain. Then I found exercise.
Back stretching exercises and back strengthening exercises worked wonders for me. Things got even better when I added aerobic exercise to my routine. What’s more, the benefits of exercise for back pain are backed up by solid research and the experience of legions of former back pain sufferers.
So why didn’t somebody tell me this years ago? I don’t know who to blame for that, but I’m telling you now so you don’t have to waste any more of your time going down the wrong path. Try exercise, and see if it works for you.
This page will help you do two things:
(1) Identify the best back exercises for your own personal exercise program;and, (equally important),
(2) Develop the strategy and tools you’ll need to stick to your back exercise program over the long haul.
You’ll find loads of useful information about back exercises at this page, with more added all the time. In your rush to get to the exercises, however, please remember: the best back exercises are the ones that you do. The greatest exercise program in the world will only help if you actually do the exercises.
So make sure you take advantage of the exercise motivation tools and resources I have listed below
The best back exercise meets the following four criteria:
- Proven safe and effective by experience — my own experience, and that of many others
- Recommended by health care professionals — the licensed kind, not self-proclaimed gurus and quacks
- Affordable — expensive equipment not required
- Convenient — can be done just about anywhere
Lower Back Stretching Exercise
Lower back stretching exercises are one of the three types of exercise that contribute to a strong, healthy and relatively pain-free back (the other two are strengthening exercise and aerobic exercise ). For best results, your exercise program should include all three.
Here you’ll find a brief explanation of why lower back stretching exercise is important and resources that will help you get going with your own stretching program.
To understand why stretching is important, consider the various kinds of muscles that support the back:
- Extensors are the muscles that come into play when we stand up, straighten or arch our back, lift and extend our arms, and move our legs forward when walking or running.
- Flexors are the muscles used to bend forward, maintain the arch in the lower back, and bring our legs back toward our body when walking or running.
- Obliques are the side muscles that provide stability for the upright back as we rotate and twist, and they help us maintain proper posture.
No matter what we call these muscles, they are involved in almost every move we make during the course of our everyday lives. Unfortunately, all these muscles tend to get weak, inflexible and out of balance over time.
So what happens when the muscles that support our back become weak, inflexible and out of balance? We become much more susceptible to the stresses, strains and injuries that result in lower back pain.
That’s the BAD news. The GOOD news is that lower back stretching exercise (when combined with strengthening and aerobic exercises) can help us improve the strength and flexibility of the muscles that support our back. Stretching exercise not only helps reduce low back pain, it may also help speed recovery and prevent future back pain episodes.
So what are you waiting for? Well, a doctor’s clearance, for one thing. If you haven’t done so already, you’ll want to check with your doctor and make sure that there is nothing that would prevent you from starting a gentle back exercise program.
While you’re at the doc, I recommend that you ask for a referral to a physical therapist. Physical therapists are trained to use exercise to reduce pain and promote rehabilitation. When you are with the physical therapist, tell her that you want a set of stretching and strengthening exercises targeted to your specific back pain problem. She will show you how to do the exercises, and you can then do them on your own time and your own dime.
Whether you use the specific lower back stretching exercises recommended by your physical therapist, or a more general stretching program such as those described below, the most important thing is to actually DO the exercises. Every day. For as long as you want to reduce and prevent back pain.
(Check out and use the motivation tools below to help you stick with your chosen exercise program.)
Stretching Guides & Resources
OK, here are some great resources for lower back stretching exercise:
“Back to Basics” is a free online guide published by the Workers Compensation Board-Alberta (Canada). This 36-page PDF document provides easy-to-understand information about back injuries, prevention, proper lifting techniques, and so on. It includes 12 pages of stretching and strengthening exercises, with good photos of each. You’ll find the 6 stretching exercises on pages 21-26. You can print out the relevant pages and have them by your side when you’re learning the exercises.
For a real smorgasbord of back stretching exercises, check out this list published by the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma. This list combines stretching and strengthening exercises. You probably won’t want to do all 23 exercises (!), but it’s a good place to pick and choose. The exercises that focus on stretching include #1 Knee to Chest, #3 Hip Rolling, #7 Cat & Camel, #8 Tail Wagging, #10 Hand-Knee Rocking, #11 Lying Prone in Extension, #18 Trunk Rotation, #20 Upper Back Stretch, #21 Side Bending, #22 Backward Bending, and #23 Pectoralis Stretch. If, like me, you have very tight, inflexible hamstring muscles, I would caution against trying exercise #19 Full Back Release. Also, you’ll note that the instructions tell you to lie on your back on a “table or firm surface”; I’d recommend carpeted floor or a floor mat.
Last but not least, read the description of my current personal favorite back stretches (further below). They are presented without pictures at this point, but I’ll be adding photos in the not-too-distant future.
Aerobic Lower Back Exercises
Aerobic lower back exercises are the kind that get your heart pumping and your lungs working. Walking, swimming, cycling and dancing are among the most popular forms of aerobic exercise.
We all know that aerobic exercise is good for our general health and fitness. However, it also turns out that aerobic exercise is a key element in any strategy aimed at using exercise to relieve and prevent back pain.
Aerobic exercise complements specific back stretching and strengthening exercises to provide the best results for those of us who are trying to ease our back pain and keep it from coming back.
In fact, recent findings from the UCLA Low Back Pain Study suggest that aerobic exercise is even more helpful for back pain than specific stretching and strengthening lower back exercises.
In my experience, lower back stretching and strengthening exercises enabled me to resume aerobic exercise (which for me means walking, jogging, and running, with a little swimming thrown in during the summer). The stretching, strengthening and aerobic exercise all work together.
What this means is that a well-rounded fitness program is not only good for general health and well-being, it also helps address the specific goal of relieving and preventing back pain.
Below you’ll find links to some proven recommendations for popular aerobic lower back exercises. It can be as simple as lacing on a comfortable pair of shoes and walking out the door, or as complicated as you choose to make it.
The important thing is to DO IT, and that’s where most exercise programs break down. It’s not that hard to find out HOW to do the aerobic lower back exercises of your choice. The difficult part is making the commitment to exercise and then CHANGING YOUR BEHAVIOR to carry out the commitment. Use the lower back exercises motivation tools to dramatically increase your chances of sticking with the lower back exercises of your choice.
A great place to start planning the aerobic part of your exercise program is with this excerpt from the booklet “Exercise and Your Heart: A Guide to Physical Activity.” It provides wonderful guidance for selecting and implementing an aerobic exercise program. I particularly like the chart that categorizes different types of physical activity according to their aerobic benefit – a good source of ideas if you’re not sure which aerobic exercise is for you.
Whether you’re in pain now or trying to prevent pain from coming back, swimming is an excellent choice for aerobic lower back exercises.
Cycling – whether on the road or on a stationary bike – is an interesting aerobic option for those dealing with back pain. Riding a bicycle can help relieve and prevent back pain, but it can also aggravate back pain if not done the right way.
Simmons College conducted a study that involved putting older adults with low back pain on a bicycle riding program. The conclusion? The bicycle program was safe and effective for improving functional status and well-being.
For some direct and practical advice on starting a bicycling exercise program, check out this article posted by the League of Michigan Bicyclists. It has mileage and workout charts for three distinct levels: just beginning to ride, riding a one day tour, and riding a 6-7 day bicycle tour.
Remember, aerobic lower back exercises are just one of the three elements of a well-rounded back exercise program. Stretching and strengthening exercises work together with aerobic exercise to give you the best results.
Back Exercise Motivation
Back exercise motivation is your key to using back exercise to help relieve and prevent back pain.
The best back exercise program includes specific stretching and strengthening exercises combined with regular aerobic exercise. However, this proven strategy only works if you actually DO the exercises.
Motivating yourself to perform the exercises that help relieve and prevent back pain is more important than learning what exercises to do and how to do them. Why is that? Because if you are highly motivated to use exercise for your back pain, then you will figure out what exercises to do and how to do them.
So how do you get yourself highly motivated to exercise for your back pain? Do you get it by reading the breezy “motivation tips” you can find on so many websites and in lots of popular magazine articles? Listening to motivational speakers? Reading inspirational stories about the success achieved by others? Psyching yourself up with slogans and affirmations?
All of the above may help you take a step or two in the right direction, but the effect is usually superficial and short-term. When the initial enthusiasm wears off, or your muscles feel painfully sore from your new exercise routine, or the demands of your job and family crowd out your exercise plans, then all too often your new-found exercise motivation seems to evaporate.
It’s important to recognize that starting or changing an exercise program means changing your current daily routine. In other words, changing your behavior.
Changing your behavior is difficult. Not impossible, but difficult, particularly when you are trying to make a change that is lasting and not just temporary.
Fortunately, the process of changing behavior has been the subject of much research. This research has yielded some specific strategies and tools that work.
Here is a step-by-step exercise motivation plan that puts proven, evidence-based behavior change strategies to work for you.
Step 1: Assess Your Readiness
The best back exercises are those that become a habit, as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth or getting dressed for the day. Follow this step-by-step exercise motivation plan to make your back exercise program a habit.
All you need to follow this plan is something to write with, something to write on, and your willingness to go through the steps.
How do you know if you’re ready to follow this or any other motivational plan? Ask the one who knows best: YOU. Answer the following question:
On a scale of 0 to 10, how ready are you to think about using exercise to help relieve and prevent your back pain? 0 = “Not At All Ready To Think About It” and 10 = “Ready and Raring To Go”
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Got your answer ready? Here’s how to interpret your response.
If you answered in the 0-3 range, you’re probably not ready.
If you answered in the 4-6 range, you’re unsure.
If you answered in the 7-10 range, you’re ready to make a plan.
What to do now? Get out your notebook, think, and write.
If you answered in the 0-3 range, ask yourself the following questions and write down your responses:
* what would need to happen for you to think about using exercise to help relieve and prevent your back pain?
* what are you willing to do to make these things happen?
If you answered in the 4-6 range, ask yourself the following questions and write down your responses:
* what would it take for you to rate your readiness as a 7 or higher?
* what do you see as your next steps?
* what can you do to take these steps?
If you answered in the 7-10 range, ask yourself the following questions and write down your responses:
* what are the most important reasons you are ready to think about using exercise to help relieve and prevent your back pain?
* why is this important to you now?
After writing down your responses to the appropriate questions listed above, please complete the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q) before going on to
Step 2: Remind Yourself of Past Success
When thinking about making a significant behavior change like starting and maintaining an exercise program, it’s helpful to have a role model. A good role model is someone who has already done what we want to do, someone who can inspire and guide us.
You already have a successful behavior change role model, although you may not be aware of it. This role model is someone who is very close to you. In fact, it’s YOU.
Yes, you are your own best role model for successful behavior change. How can I say this? Because almost all of us have successfully changed some health behavior in the past.
Think about it. At least one time in your life, and probably many times, you have either adopted a healthy habit or stopped an unhealthy behavior. Don’t believe me? Have you ever:
* stopped smoking
* switched from whole milk to low fat or skim milk
* started regularly using your seat belt
* modified your diet because of diabetes, high blood pressure, or any number of other reasons
* etc., etc.
For this step, you are to remember at least one example of your past success in changing or adopting a healthy habit. Write down and complete the following sentences:
“An example of a health habit I have successfully changed for the better is ______”
“I was able to make this healthy change because _______” (list all the reasons you can think of)
“The biggest barriers I had to overcome to make this change were ________” (list all the difficulties you can remember)
If you have more than one example of successful health behavior change, then complete the above three sentences for some of your other examples.
Now think about what you have written down. This step not only builds your confidence, it also helps you identify strategies that have worked for you in the past. How can you use and adapt YOUR OWN PROVEN SUCCESS STRATEGIES to start and maintain an exercise program for your back?
When you’re ready, go on to
Step 3: Your Motivating Benefits
Step 3 is simple, straightforward and powerful. Write down a list of benefits you hope to get through your back exercise program.
What do you see as the benefits of an exercise program in general, and a back exercise program in particular? What are the good things you expect to happen as a result of exercise? Write them down.
To get you started on your list, here are some examples of the benefits of back exercise identified by others:
* help relieve back pain right now
* help prevent back pain in the future
* have more energy
* relieve stress and tension
* help control weight
* increase physical strength and endurance
* maintain a better mood and mental outlook
* lower cholesterol
* lower blood pressure
* etc., etc., etc.
These are just examples. Make your own list as specific and personal as you can. Keep adding benefits to your list as they come to mind.
After you’ve written down all the good things that you expect to get from a well-rounded program of back exercise, go on to
Step 4: Your Barriers and Sacrifices
Everyone has barriers to overcome and sacrifices to make when it comes to starting and sticking with a back exercise program. If you can name the things that are ready to keep you from success, you can figure out a way over, around or through them.
In Step 4, you identify the obstacles that can prevent you from making back exercise a habit. This includes both internal and external barriers, those that are in your mind and those that are in your environment.
What do you see as your barriers to back exercise? Write them down.
What will you have to give up in order to follow your back exercise program? You’re already doing SOMETHING every minute of the day: sleeping, eating, working, taking care of household chores, watching TV, surfing the Internet, and so on. What will you give up or reschedule in order to have time for your back exercise program? Write down your response.
What is it about a back exercise program that you don’t like? Is there anything about exercise in general or back exercise in particular that you consider disagreeable or unappealing? Write it down.
OK, now look over the obstacles to exercise that you just wrote down. Which ones do you think are genuine barriers, and which ones are excuses? If you focus your attention on the things that appear to you to be genuine barriers, the excuses will probably take care of themselves.
Not sure how to tackle your obstacles to exercise? Try the “IDEA” problem-solving technique.
I = Identify one specific obstacle you face in your desire to use exercise to help relieve and prevent back pain.
D = Develop a list of possible ways to overcome this obstacle. Brainstorm – by yourself or even better with the help of others who are sympathetic to your goals – as many possible solutions as you can, no matter how outlandish or impractical these solutions may seem.
E = Evaluate your list of possible solutions, decide which you are willing to try, and try out your selected strategies.
A = Assess your results. If it worked, great! You’re ready to move on. If it didn’t work, go back and try another approach. Believe that there IS a way to overcome the obstacle in question – your job is to keep trying solutions until you find the one or ones that work for you.
On to …
Step 5: Build Your Confidence
Your confidence in your ability to exercise makes all the difference in the world. If you believe that you will be able to start and stick with a back exercise program, then you will likely do so. If you doubt your ability to do back exercise, then it will be much tougher for you to achieve your goal.
But confidence is not an either/or proposition, where you’ve either got it or you don’t. We all have a certain level of self-confidence and a certain level of self-doubt about all areas of our life, including exercise. Our confidence level also goes up and down from day to day and even moment to moment, depending on our experiences and our perception of those experiences.
This is actually good news, because it means that you can build and strengthen your belief in your ability to exercise.
Answer the following question for a simple confidence self-assessment.
On a scale of 1 to 5, how confident are you that you will be able to start and stick with a back exercise program?
(1 = lowest confidence and 5 = highest confidence)
If you answered 1 or 2, write down your answer to the following question: why do you think your confidence in this area is low? Try to be as specific as possible in listing the obstacles, realities and attitudes that may be contributing to your current low confidence level.
If you answered 3, you have a certain level of confidence mixed in with some uncertainty. That’s normal. Write down your answer to the following question: what can you do to make exercise more appealing to you? If you can take steps to make exercise more appealing to you, then you will have greater confidence. Go back to your response in Step 4 to the question about the things that you find unappealing or disagreeable about exercise. Use the IDEA strategy outlined in Step 4 to come up with ways to change the things that you don’t like about exercise.
If you answered 4-5, then your confidence is high and so are your chances of developing a successful exercise routine. Your challenge is to develop the confidence that you will not only start an exercise program, you will also stick with it through the inevitable obstacles and interruptions.
There are many things in life that disrupt our exercise intentions: family obligations, work demands, travel, holidays, job changes, illness, injuries, and more. In some cases, you will be able to continue exercising despite changes in your routine, while other interruptions will stop your exercise program altogether. By anticipating and even expecting such disruptions, you can plan in advance how you will respond.
Write down your answers to the following questions: what are some of the things that you expect to throw off your exercise program? what can you do to be ready to maintain some level of exercise when these things happen? how will you get started again when life changes bring a temporary halt to your exercise program?
One final thought before we move on to Step 6. Think of yourself as a person who exercises on a regular basis. Create a picture in your mind of yourself doing your back stretching, strengthening and aerobic exercises. Make this picture as vivid as possible – picture the clothes you are wearing, the location where you are exercising, the time of day, and most importantly, how you feel while exercising. Since you are making this all up in your mind, visualize yourself feeling great while you exercise!
When you see yourself as a person who exercises, then you will always return to exercising despite distractions and setbacks. When you are temporarily unable to exercise for whatever reason, you will feel uncomfortable and uneasy until you start exercising again. Your self-image as a person who exercises will get you back into an exercise routine, and you won’t feel quite right until it does.
If you are just getting started and you don’t yet see yourself as a person who exercises, then you may well be skeptical of the power of your self-image. That’s because you know that just picturing yourself exercising is not enough, you need to actually do it.
Fair enough. So let’s go to …
Step 6: Set Your Back Exercise Goals
Setting and using goals is essential to your exercise success. Simply by writing down your exercise goals and referring to them on a daily basis, you dramatically increase your chances of starting and sticking with a back exercise program.
Start a new page in your exercise notebook. Write “My Back Exercise Goals” at the top of the page. Then write out your goals in the following format.
Begin by briefly reminding yourself WHY you want to exercise for your back. Look back at the benefits you listed in Step 3 and complete the sentence “The main reasons why I want to exercise are _____”
Your One-Week Goals
Now make a new heading on the page that says “My One-Week Goals.” Write down your goals for the coming week. Set one-week goals for each of the following:
- back stretching exercise
- back strengthening exercise
- aerobic exercise
Make your goals specific and measurable. “I’ll do back stretching exercises” is vague and unspecific. “I’ll perform 5 back stretching exercises for 5 minutes every morning and evening this week” is specific and measurable.
Each day, write down your progress toward your One-Week Goals in your exercise notebook. Here’s a sample of what I mean: “Stretched 5 minutes morning & evening, strengthening exercises 10 minutes in morning, brisk 10 minute walk after work.” You don’t need to write an essay, you want to keep it simple while documenting what you did or didn’t do that day.
Your Three Month Goals
Start a new heading on the Goals page of your notebook that says “My Three-Month Goals.” Write down what you want your exercise program to look like in three months. For example, your Three-Month Goals might be something like:
* back stretching exercises for 10 minutes morning and evening every day
* back strengthening exercises for 15 minutes three times per week
* 30-minute walk at least five days per week
If you’re just starting an exercise program, then you will need to take baby steps and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your exercise program. Three months gives you the time you need to build up to your longer-range goals, but its not so far out that it seems like it will never come.
If you’ve already got a well-rounded back exercise program started, then your Three-Month Goals should focus on strengthening your exercise habits and building your commitment and confidence.
Week By Week
Now you’ve got One-Week Goals and Three-Month Goals for your back exercise program, and you are recording your progress on a daily basis. At the end of each week, set new One-Week Goals so that you are moving ever closer to your Three-Month Goals.
It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? Well, it is simple, but it is not easy. It takes effort to carry out your goals, and writing down your results each day in your planner or calendar is probably a new habit for you.
YOU CAN DO IT! If you’ve made it this far, then you can most definitely set and achieve back exercise goals. Finish off your motivation plan by going to …
Step 7: Measure Your Success
At the most basic level, there are two keys to measuring the success of your back exercise program:
1. Setting One-Week and Three-Month Goals that are specific and measurable
2. Writing down your progress toward your goals on a consistent basis
You just covered this in goal-setting Step 6. When you do these two things, then you will have reliable and frequent feedback on the success of your exercise program. Reliable and frequent feedback is what you need to stay on track.
Repeat after me:
Set exercise goals, and write down your progress toward your goals.
Set exercise goals, and write down your progress toward your goals.
Set exercise goals, and write down your progress toward your goals.
Enough already. I know, it sounds too simple, but it works.
Make it work for YOU.
Re-Assess Your Readiness
Here’s another good way to measure your success. Once a month, go back to Step 1 in the Back Exercise Motivation Plan and answer the “Assess Your Readiness” question on the scale of 0 to 10. Write down your updated self-assessment of readiness each month, and compare it to your previous ratings. If your self-assessment number increases over time, that’s a good indicator of success.
One Last Question
One final question that can help you measure your success.
How do you feel when something prevents you from exercising?
If you feel relieved that you don’t “have” to do your exercise that day, you know you’ve still got a ways to go before you can claim exercise motivation success.
However, when you reach the point where not being able to do your exercises makes you feel annoyed, out of sorts, or otherwise uncomfortable, then you know you’re on the right track. When back exercise becomes such a part of your life that you don’t feel quite right without it, then you will always find a way to stick with your exercise program or return to it after an interruption.
That’s the kind of success that can stay with you for the rest of your life. It can happen for you when you follow each step of the Back Exercise Motivation Plan. YOU CAN DO IT!
By working your way through the seven steps outlined above, you will increase your back exercise motivation and help make back exercise a regular part of your healthy lifestyle.