(7 min read)
(written for: anyone who trains in the gym, anyone who is searching for the best exercises for lower back pain a long with diagnosing some lower back pain causes).
I injured my back… you possibly know the feeling. You aren’t quite sure what you’ve done, or quite how you did it, but it feels like hell has frozen over and it hurts to cough! Being injured sucks. Injuring your lower back sucks even worse!
I lift four times each week and have done so since the age of 17 (roughly, on and off due to injury). I’m a perfectionist that films and analyses every heavy lift, to help drive me towards flawless execution. I head to the gym once a week purely to go through a ‘prehabilitation’ session (to prevent injury)… and you know what’s kept me out of lifting for three weeks…? Lifting my dining room table! and oh yes… it is one of those little round ones from Ikea.
Lesson 1… ALWAYS respect a lift. Whether that be moving a box at home, carrying your child, or even just simply carrying the shopping! There are thousands of lower back pain causes, but the most frequently suffered, are the ones we approach most casually.
If you do a pretty bad job of it, you’ll possibly be in the situation where I am currently at; three weeks of no lifting, missing out on rounds of golf (so… many… tears) and having to repeatedly perform un-exciting and not very glamorous rehabilitative exercises.
All of this could have been avoided if I hadn’t neglected the importance of correct form when attempting to lift my dining room table… I mean… I was in a rush right… so it didn’t matter!? WRONG. Now, admittedly it is an awkward shape, but I can guarantee you that moving furniture around your home is one of the main lower back pain causes probably world wide.
Exercises for Lower Back Pain
We’ll start off with the big three. The three exercises that I am currently doing three times each week that are promoted so heavily by the great Stuart McGill. I recommend doing 3 sets of each of these. The goal is not crash, bang, wallop… it’s all about slow, rhythmic and deliberate muscular contractions. Think muscular science, not BRO-SCIENCE.
1. The curl up
You may well know I hate my sit ups. But this adaptation is amazing for back rehabilitation. When rehabbing any injury, specifically the spine, don’t just think of strengthening the muscle that you feel that you have injured… for your lower back, most people think this to be the Erector Spinae (muscles that run alongside your spine). Think of the spine as the whole of your trunk. If you can strengthen and stabilise your trunk as a whole, this can protect your spine and will help prevent the risk of injury. The Rectus Abdominis (your abs), are one such muscle grouping you should be focusing on for back rehab! They cover such a huge surface area and provide a lot of stability to your trunk. Often, lower back pain causes and injuries stem from having weak Abdominals.
Furthermore, most sit ups are completely hashed up and you don’t get the benefit within your abs due to this being generally a weak muscle group for the average person… so they compensate by pulling on their hip flexors. The curl up takes the hip flexors out of play as it’s designed to be a controlled sit up, pause and then return. Add them in right away!
2. The side plank
Look to engage your lats (big back muscles), Serratus’ (muscles surrounding your rib cage), Obliques (muscles down the side of your body) and your Glutes (your butt). The goal is to build up to holding the position with just your forearm and outer side of your foot in contact with the ground for 10 seconds each rep. If this causes pain, hold for 8 seconds, still pain? Hold for 6 seconds. If this still causes pain, pop your knee on the floor and go for 10 seconds again. Focus on really contracting every muscle down the side of your body that’s closest to the floor as hard as you can! Gradually build week on week until you are able to hold the full position for multiple reps. I suggest 2-3 reps each side.
3. The Bird Dog
Start in a box position - hips and shoulders at right angles, hands directly beneath your shoulders, knees directly beneath your hips. Initiate the movement from your glute (butt cheek) of the moving leg. Kick that leg out dead straight, nice and slowly, as far as you can go and point your toes. Whilst simultaneously stretching out your arm overhead, stretched out straight with your fingers pointing forward. Your arm should finish alongside your ear.
Your finger tips all the way to your ankle should be level. That means remaining solid and keeping the structure in your spine! No extension (sinking your belly button towards the floor) and no flexion (rounding your back). Whilst contracting all of the muscles in the posterior (back) side of your body.
Hold that position for 1-2 seconds then return to the bottom.
I suggest anywhere from 5-10 reps each side.
And then a handful of these exercises are going to be hugely beneficial if performed correctly.
Pick from any of 3 of these and perform a further 3 sets.
Reverse Hypers - Aim to contract your glutes, hamstrings and all of the muscles in your back. Initiate the movement with your lower back, squeeze and hold at the top for a count of 1 then return to the bottom. 10 reps is a good target.
Reverse Snow Angels - Similar in beneficial properties to the Reverse Hyper, but creates less pressure in your back. These will however force you to hold the spinal extension for a longer period of time than the Reverse Hyper. Less contraction of your glutes and hamstrings, but keep your chin neutral (don’t pull your neck back), pull your shoulders off the floor and create an arc with your arms which meet at the top - like a snow angel. Take 1-2 seconds to perform this arc then return those arms back to your side and return your shoulders to the floor. Again, 10 reps is a good target.
Deadbugs - My absolute favourite Rectus Abdominis exercise that consistently goes in my top 3. For overall abdominal contraction, personally I don’t feel there is a better exercise than these when performed correctly. KEEP the tension on your abs the whole time by tilting your pelvis towards you and keep your shoulders off of the floor throughout the set. 10 reps in total.
Cat cows - An extremely effective mobility drill for the spine. Approach with caution and stay within your means when either in spinal flexion or extension. I’ve seen people try to go too far and impress others around them by showcasing superior flexibility before, only for them to go too far and re-injure themselves! Start in a box position - hips and shoulders at right angles, hands directly beneath your shoulders, knees directly beneath your hips. Exhale on the spine extension (Cow - bending of the back, eyes forward). Then big inhale on the spine flexion (Cat - rounded back, eyes facing your knees).
So hopefully that’s six sets of back strengthening exercises you’ve added in to your armoury. If you are currently injured, I recommended performing 6 sets, 3-4 times per week. If you aren’t injured and you’ve realised you need to add these in for preventative measures… GOOD! 6 sets, 1-2 times per week will see huge improvements! Just remember to focus on the trunk as a whole! Utilise all of the exercises to stimulate from every angle!
You go and see any Chiropractor, Osteopath or rehabilitation specialist and you are likely to hear that the most common injury or ailment we all see is lower back pain. That will also probably come as no great surprise to you!
Performing a solid tripleset, incorporating any of the listed exercises for lower back pain above for just 20-30 minutes each week at the start/end of your training session, is going to pay HUGE dividends for you if you are serious about your training. In all honesty, even if you aren’t and you are more of a class bunny, skipping a class for one session each week and performing a back saving tripleset may allow you train much harder and remain injury free in the future!
I know we are all in a rush to get results, that’s the westerner way… but going crash, bang, wallop 24/7 is a one way ticket to a long time spent off injured. Opt for the slightly longer but much more sensible approach, use one whole session to focus on prehab/rehabilitation and your body in the long run will thank you for it! I guarantee it!
And oh yeah… don’t EVER disrespect any lift by not giving it your full attention, regardless of how little or big it may seem.
Yours in health