When your back hurts, just the idea of getting off the couch can be painful — let alone moving enough to break a sweat. But if you’re like nearly 80 percent of adults who suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, the solution shouldn’t be to throw in the towel on your workout.
The exercises that typically trouble people with lower back pain are the ones that tap the glutes, hamstrings and core muscles — the very muscles that, when weak, can trigger aches in the first place, says Gavin McHale, a Winnipeg-based kinesiologist and certified exercise physiologist. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should perform exercises that hurt (there’s no reason to suffer!). Instead, it should be all about finding modifications that build your strength back up — the right way.
Check out these five exercise tweaks to keep your back happy at the gym, and for the rest of the day. (Just remember, if you’re suffering from a lower back injury, talk to your doctor first before hopping into a new fitness routine.)
5 Exercise Tweaks to Reduce Lower Back Pain
1. The Move: Back Squat
How to Modify It: Put down the weights and pick up a stability ball — at least for a little while. For this move, you’ll perform a basic bodyweight squat, but with the ball sandwiched between your mid-back and a wall, explains physical therapist Timothy Roy, CSCS, regional clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. This teaches you how to maintain a neutral spine and forces you to evenly distribute the load — rather than putting all the pressure on your lower back, he says. What’s more, with your back against the ball, it’s impossible to lean too far forward, which is another cause of mid-squat back pain, McHale says. Once you’ve mastered stability ball squats, try moving onto squats with weights — just keep that same neutral spine position.
2. The Move: Sit-Up
How to Modify It: If you suffer from back pain, doing a full sit-up with your chest hitting your knees is totally overrated. “Modify by only rising to where your shoulder blades come off of the mat,” Roy says. (This movement strengthens your six-pack muscles, anyway.) And again, prioritize keeping a neutral spine throughout the exercise, he says. Notice only your butt and upper back touch the floor (in other words, your back arches)? Draw your belly button in to press the small of your back into the floor.
3. The Move: Deadlift
How to Modify It: Because many people have tight hamstrings, bending all the way down to the floor for this exercise, while still maintaining proper, pain-free alignment can be tricky. “If you’re dead-set on picking up a weight, change to one of many different deadlift variations out there,” McHale suggests. For instance, a Romanian deadlift (or RDL) involves lowering a weight from the top of the thighs to about knee height, and then back up again. (This requires far less flexibility than traditional deadlifts.) You could also try placing weights on blocks so that you don’t have to bend as far down to pick them up, says Pat Gilles, CSCS, a Wisconsin-based strength coach. With time, a combination of RDLs, stretching and mobility work may help increase your range of motion to make traditional deadlifts more doable.
4. The Move: Leg Lift
How to Modify It: “This is a great exercise for your lower back,” Gilles says. It utilizes core muscles to lift the legs from just above the floor to directly over the hips, and takes even more strength to raise hips toward the ceiling. One catch, though, many people arch too much to get some oomph, which is why it can feel not so great on the back. To prevent pain, Gilles recommends squeezing your glutes throughout the entire movement and not worrying about getting your hips and butt so high off of the floor during the second part of the move.
Another ache-easing variation: Instead of lifting both legs simultaneously, target one at a time, Roy says. To perform single-leg lifts, lie on your back and extend one leg straight out in front of you. With your hands flat on the floor, bend your opposite knee and raise it toward your chest. Keep your knee at your chest throughout the entire exercise — this tilts your pelvis into a proper neutral spine position. From here, perform straight leg lifts with the opposite leg. Then switch sides.
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5. The Move: Plank
How to Modify It: “Planks shouldn’t hurt anyone’s back as they are isometric and the spine should be neutral — the safest position,” McHale says. If you do feel discomfort, take a look at your form in the mirror. (And check out a cheat sheet here.) Your body should stay in a straight line from head to heels throughout the entire exercise. “Make sure that the abs are super tight, pulling the ribcage down, and that the butt is clenched like you’re cracking walnuts,” McHale explains. Can’t maintain your line? Try them with your hands on an elevated surface like a sturdy chair or bench. Once your core (back included) gets stronger, you can give full-on planks another shot.