A Back Pain Sufferer’s Guide to Exercise
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Health & Fitness

A Back Pain Sufferer’s Guide to Exercise

Three moves that will lessen the agony and strengthen your back

Man doing the bird dog exercise
Alamy

The pandemic might have taken away our commutes, but it also took away our ergonomic office chairs and standing desks. We had to pivot and work slumped over any flat table-like surface we could find in our living room, kitchen, bedroom or even our kid’s bedroom. The result was a hellscape for our spines. 

Eighty-five percent of back pain is “nonspecific” — meaning it isn’t tied to a diagnosable problem like a bulged disk, tumor or fracture. This kind of pain is driven by our modern lifestyles, which are, to be frank, increasingly lazy. We now move 14 times less than our early ancestors (who didn’t seem to get this nonspecific pain). We spend most days slouching behind a screen. Our back muscles are rarely challenged and become weak.

Then we expect those muscles to protect our spine and keep it like a titanium rod when we come out of our pandemic hideaways and, say, move furniture, play 18 holes of golf or dabble in some hellish CrossFit workout we heard about from an intern.

When pain lands, we’re often told to rest. But that won’t fix the issue, says Doug Kechijian, PT, DPT, owner of Resilient Performance Physical Therapy in New York City. “If there isn’t structural damage to the back, you need some level of movement and activity to get out of pain.”

But what kind of movement, exactly? Kechijian recommends hitting the gym and doing anything and everything you want, so long as you “don’t do anything that brings your pain above its baseline level.”

You’ll probably find that different forms of cardio are helpful. You can even tackle your old routine. Modulate the weights, sets, reps, speed and distance, as needed. If something exacerbates your pain, cut it out. 

Or you could opt for exercises specifically designed to ease and prevent back pain.

Stuart McGill spent a career studying back pain at the University of Waterloo. His comprehensive textbook Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation identifies three basic exercises that can help prevent and relieve back pain. The moves strengthen the muscles that protect your spine, so your spine is less likely to be overloaded by surprise or planned stress — like moving furniture, playing golf or flagellating yourself with a CrossFit routine. 

Do at least one set of each as often as once a day.

Curl-up

Lie on your back with one knee bent and the other straight. Place your hands under your lower back. Keeping your neck straight, lift your shoulders off the floor a few inches while you look at the ceiling; hold that position for 10 seconds. Don’t move your lower back throughout. Swap the knee positions and repeat. Work up to longer holds over time.

Side plank

Lie on your side in a straight line, your upper body propped on your elbow. Raise your hips so that only your feet and arm are supporting your weight. Hold the position for 10 seconds, then repeat on the other side. Work up to longer holds over time.

Bird dog

Get down on all fours, your back slightly arched. Keep your lower back stable as you slowly kick one leg back as you slowly raise the opposite side arm until both your leg and arm are fully straightened out behind and in front of you. Hold the position for 10 seconds and then repeat on the other side. Work up to longer holds over time.

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