If you suffer from lower back pain, you’re not alone. Lower back pain is one of the most common ailments adults face, and its prevalence is steadily increasing amongst people of all age ranges. Whether it’s a constant dull ache that never subsides or episodes of acute pain, anyone who’s experienced back pain knows that it can significantly affect your quality of life.
Most back pain tends to subside on its own in time, with people often relying on over-the-counter pain relievers and hot or cold packs to help manage the discomfort in the meantime. But while these tactics can offer temporary relief, they’re limited in that they treat the symptoms instead of the root cause of the pain.
Since much of the lower back pain people experience stems from the accumulation of bad habits like poor posture, carrying heavy loads incorrectly, and a lack of core strength due to a sedentary lifestyle, working on these factors can help alleviate it.
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In fact, incorporating exercises that improve strength and flexibility in your core and legs into your daily routine can help reduce incidences of back pain. “While it’s intuitive that you need a strong core to support your lower back, it’s also essential to have strong legs,” says physical therapist Ashley Kaiser, P.T., D.P.T., of Ultimate Treatment Zone Physical Therapy. “Without strong legs, your back experiences increased stress in everyday movements.”
Ready to put in the work? The following three physical therapist-approved exercises can help combat—and potentially eliminate—lower back pain.
1. Glute Bridges
The glute bridge is a popular beginner exercise for its simplicity and versatility for strengthening your core and leg muscles. The exercise can also be done just about anywhere without the assistance of any special equipment or weights.
The glute bridge primarily targets the gluteal muscles, including the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. “Having strong glutes is key to preventing harmful compensation patterns that result in overuse injuries of the muscles in your lower back,” Kaiser says. “They also improve poor posture, such as anterior pelvic tilt, by stretching the hip flexors and eliminating excessive extension at your lower back.”
How to do it:
- Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the ground hip-width apart, and arms long at your sides.
- Gently contract your abdominal muscles to flatten your back into the floor.
- Exhale and contract your glutes to press your hips off the ground.
- Hold for five to 10 seconds.
- Inhale and lower back down slowly.
- Complete two to three sets of 10 to 12 reps. Repeat at least once per week.
2. Good Mornings
Often thought to have gotten its name from the bowing motion some cultures make as they greet someone, the good morning is an excellent exercise for activating and strengthening your core and paraspinal muscles (which support your back). The exercise can be done with just your bodyweight or, if you prefer something more challenging, with a load.
The good morning is what’s known as a hip-hinge movement, activating many of your body’s biggest muscles, including your glutes and hamstrings. The movement also helps strengthen your erector spinae muscles (a group of nine muscles in your lower back where back pain is commonly felt).
”This movement pattern is particularly helpful for teaching you how to maintain a neutral spine, instead of bending at your back, while lifting loads, which is essential for preventing lifting-related injuries and reducing stress at the lower back joints,” says Kaiser.
How to do it:
- Stand with your legs straight and feet shoulder-width apart, with a broomstick or barbell resting across the backs of your shoulders. (Or, simply interlace your fingers behind the back of your head.)
- With your back flat and core engaged, push your hips back to lower your torso until it’s nearly parallel to the floor.
- Hold the bottom position, then slowly press your hips forward to raise your torso back to standing.
- If doing bodyweight only, perform two to three sets of eight to 12 reps to build muscular strength and endurance. If using a weighted barbell, perform two to three sets of six to eight reps to reduce your risk of losing proper technique once fatigued.
3. Wall Sits
The wall sit (or wall squat) is a great exercise that targets your quadriceps and glutes. This versatile exercise can be performed anywhere and up-leveled by adding weight or increasing the time spent in the position.
The wall sit is great for building muscular endurance, flexibility, mobility, and overall strength that comes in handy throughout the day. “Our bodies are designed to perform functional movements, and if you have weakness in these muscles, your lower back tries to compensate,” Kaiser notes. “This typically results in a muscle strain or compressive injury at the back.”
How to do it:
- Stand with your back flat against a wall and feet shoulder-width apart and about two feet from it.
- Engage your core and slowly bend your knees to slide your back down the wall until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Hold this squat position for 10 to 20 seconds, keeping your back flat against the wall.
- Slowly press back to a standing position.
- Hold for at least 20-30 seconds for 4-5 rounds. If your legs aren’t fatigued from that duration, you can increase the hold time of the position or increase the depth.
One key to truly kicking back pain is maintaining a workout routine long-term. Try to increase the amount of physical activity you do each day, starting with the moves above. While physical therapy can help address deficits in mobility and strength and promote sustainable functional movement, it’s important to keep moving after treatment stops.
That said, it’s also important to keep in mind that physical therapy and exercise won’t always eliminate back pain. A few potential reasons why it might not help:
- You perform exercises incorrectly, which could just lead to more back pain.
- You don’t stick with a program long enough to build strength and see results, which may take up to six to eight weeks.
- You go to therapy just for passive modalities (massage, heat, e-stim) instead of participating in active exercise interventions.
- You’re overweight or obese, which can put added stress on your back.
Of course, you should always seek medical attention if your back pain is related to an injury, is severe, causes numbness or tingling in your legs, or doesn’t improve after one to two weeks.