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The best exercises for back pain

Back pain affects nearly everyone at some point in their life. Whether it's due to a work-related injury or a fall, back pain - specifically in your lower back - causes more disability than any other condition according the World Health Organization. Yet despite how debilitating back pain can be, the good news is, there are ways to ease some of this pain and get you back to feeling like yourself again.

If you live with back pain, you know all too well how quickly it can stop you in your tracks. It used to be that if you were dealing with this condition, your doctor would tell you to stop any activity and even place you on bed rest. But we now know that inactivity is not the best way to treat all types of back pain.

In fact, US-based chiropractor Dr David Shapiro from Complete Spine Solutions says bed rest and lack of motion slows down the recovery process in some people. If you want to speed up your healing time, think motion. You may find our Back Pain Exercises Videos helpful.

However, while exercise is usually a good thing, physiotherapist Dr Alice Holland from Stride Strong Physical Therapy does warn that people shouldn't do exercises that are not specifically prescribed for them. The reason why, she says, is that back pain can originate from a bulged, slipped or ruptured (herniated) disc, pressure on the spinal cord (spinal stenosis), or from dysfunction in the sacroiliac joint, which is located in the pelvis.

"Different exercises would ease the pain for different conditions. The stretch or exercise for a bulging disc would absolutely aggravate patients with stenosis (although the latter is rare in younger people) and vice versa," she explains.

The bottom line is this: if you have a current back injury, work with your doctor or physiotherapist to come up with a series of exercises to treat your specific problem.

Lower Back Stretches (Sitting Routine)

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Exercises to help prevent back pain

When it comes to exercises that can help prevent back pain, Holland says that is an entirely different issue.

"My strongest opinion is to strengthen the muscles in your tummy and your bottom," she says.

The plank

One exercise that targets the tummy muscles is the plank.

"Some people compensate heavily with this exercise because they are too weak to keep their hips up, so I encourage them to keep good form and adjust the exercise to make it easier if they're struggling," Holland explains. She says a strong core will protect most people, regardless of their history or condition, from causing spinal joint issues.

Like Holland, Shapiro also agrees that the base of your body's strength is found in your core. Your core is the area located around your lower back and tummy. He also recommends the plank for strengthening this area and preventing back pain - as long as you use good form and pay attention to your hips.

To do: lie down on your front with forearms on the floor and elbows beneath shoulders. Feet should be flexed with toes on the floor. Rise up on your toes so that only your forearms and toes touch the floor. Your body should be a few inches off the floor in a straight line. Bring belly button to spine, by contracting your deep tummy muscles, and tighten your bottom and upper body.

Double leg squat

To strengthen the muscles in your bottom, Hollands says the traditional double leg squat is an excellent exercise to do. Handy tips to remember are - hips back, core tight and knees aligned front.

To do: stand with feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Extend arms out straight in front of you (palms down). Slowly bend your legs and squat down until thighs are parallel to floor or for an advanced move, go slightly lower than parallel. Keep your head up and look straight ahead. Pause at the bottom and stand back. Add dumbbells for resistance.


You can't go wrong with walking. You don't have to walk fast to protect your back. Even slow laps around your living room are enough to help with mobility and recovery.

"That's because walking warms up your transverse tummy muscles, which maintains core stability, and the repetitive swinging of arms and legs lets your blood flow and circulate," says Holland.

When to see a doctor

While many of the exercises and treatments you can do at home are helpful, there may be times when you do need to see a doctor.

You can find all the warning symptoms to look out for in our leaflet. But Shapiro also recommends asking advice from a doctor who is an expert in spinal problems when you have:

Sharp lower back pain

This could be a herniated disc or other sudden spine or organ issue that needs to be properly looked at.

Lower back pain that lasts more than a week - this could be something serious that won't heal by itself. This is less likely to be a muscle spasm and more likely to be an injury that should get medical attention.

Pain, coldness, tingling or weakness in the legs, feet or toes

This is generally inflammation of sensory or motor nerves. This can be something more serious. Possible issues with your blood circulation should be ruled out when more basic spine care does not resolve these symptoms.

A loss of bowel or bladder function

Go directly to A&E. This could indicate spinal cord compression and needs immediate emergency medical attention.

Back pain does not have to disrupt your life forever. Through proper treatment, care and exercises, you can get back to living an active life.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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