Fitness

The Best and Worst Exercises For Chronic Back Pain

Back pain can be an excruciating experience for some. Whether it’s a jabbing, stabbing, or burning pain, any bit of relief goes a long way to… Trista - February 11, 2022

Back pain can be an excruciating experience for some. Whether it’s a jabbing, stabbing, or burning pain, any bit of relief goes a long way to feeling better. Maybe your doctor recommends more activity on your part. There are exercises for back pain that can either make things better or worse. Some can relieve your pain and even strengthen your back without causing more pain. Others might make your back pain hurt even more. Take a look at this list of the best exercises for back pain followed by the worst exercises for back pain. You may find a simple workout that works for your case that helps get rid of some of the pain you’re experiencing!

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35. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Swimming 

Swimming is fun and refreshing for all ages, especially in the summertime. Some gyms and even community centers or YMCAs have indoor pools open to the public for swimming all year round. Aerobic exercises use the big muscles of your body rhythmically and repetitively (via Men’s Journal). Because these activities can get the blood flowing in your back muscles, they can help when recovering from an injury and increase your strength. Because you are also floating, it doesn’t put pressure on your joints or the discs in your spine (via Everyday Health). 

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34. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Yoga and Exercise Balls

Yoga is a great and relaxing workout for back pain because as long as your teacher knows your limitations, it can be done safely to help benefit you and your back pain (via Everyday Health). By combining a few light exercises with the flexibility, you get from yoga exercises, you help to build up strength in your back. By adding an exercise ball to your routine, you can have more stretching and strengthening choices (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). 

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33. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Bridging and Pelvic Tilts

There are two different exercises that you could try that are good for your back. One is known as bridging (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). This is where your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and tighten your stomach muscles. You will then feel your back pressing into the floor, with your hips and pelvis rocking back. The following exercise is a pelvic tilt. Again, lie on your back with your knees bent and just your heels on the floor. Push your heels into the floor, squeeze your buttocks, and lift your hips off the floor until your knees, hips, and shoulders are parallel with each other (via WebMD). 

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32. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Simple Stretches 

Knee-to-chest and the hamstring stretch are two stretches that are both good for back pain. Knee to chest stretching is where you lie on your back with your knees back and have your feet flat on the floor (via On Health). Bring one knee up at a time, using your hands to pull your knee close to your chest while straightening your back out. Then repeat with the other knee. To do the hamstring stretch, you start in the same position. Place both hands behind your knee as you lift your leg and straighten your lower leg simultaneously. Then repeat the same thing with the other leg (via Everyday Health). 

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31. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Partial Crunches

You may think that doing sit-ups can strengthen your abdominal muscles or core, but that’s not quite the case. Without even realizing it, most people tend to use the muscles in their hips when doing sit-ups (via On Health). They can also put a lot of pressure on the discs in your spine. Doing partial crunches instead of a full sit-up can help strengthen your stomach and back muscles. To achieve a partial crunch, lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, cross your arms over your chest or put your hands behind your neck. As you raise your shoulders off the floor, breathe out while tightening your stomach muscles (via WebMD). 

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30. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Walking

Running can seem like a great way to burn calories, but the repetitive pounding of your feet on the treadmill or gravel can wreak havoc on your back by putting stress on a strained muscle or disc. Try walking instead (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). It tones and strengthens your leg muscles and lower back and is gentle on your back (via Sunrise Hospital). Keep reading for more oof the best exercise for back pain, followed by the worst exercises for back pain. 

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29. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Hamstring Stretches

Hamstring stretches are an excellent exercise for people with lower back pain, as they help to strengthen the muscles in your lower back. Sure, this people use this exercise for its leg benefits. However, it is also one of the best back exercises. How? It can benefit your lower back, where muscle attachments to your legs are found (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). To do this exercise, begin by lying on your back with one knee bent into the air. Then, use a towel to put under the ball of your foot on the unbent leg. Start pulling on both sides of the towel until you feel some resistance. This stretch can also be beneficial for leg pain (via On Health).

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28. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Zercher Squats

If you are big into lifting weights, specifically barbells, then we have some good news for you. If you haven’t heard of Zercher squats before, you may want to give them a try next time you’re at the gym or even lifting weights at home (via WebMD). This type of squat is a front-loaded variation that allows you to easily maintain a straight spine while stabilizing your core muscles to a high degree. To achieve a Zercher squat, start by placing a foam sleeve over a barbell that’s secured at waist height and hook your elbows under the bar. Then pull it tight against your abdomen, keeping your elbows tucked into your sides while bracing your core. Bend at the hips and knees to squat down as far as you can that’s comfortable to you, without breaking your form or raising your heels from the floor. The bar should always be directly above your feet. After pausing, drive through your feet and return to a standing position (via Men’s Journal). 

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27. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Press-Up Back Extensions

Press-up back extensions can be beneficial for those with back pain. This exercise helps stabilize the muscles in your lower back and strengthens those muscles. There are various press-up back extensions you can do to relieve your back pain. The most common type is performed by lying on your stomach and putting your hands on the floor under your shoulders (via Healthline). You will then push the top half of your body upwards using your hands. Holding this position for a few seconds will strengthen your lower back muscles and is often recommended by doctors for people with back pain. If you’re interested in other styles of back extensions, the link below will guide you with a step-by-step process (via On Health).

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26. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Knee to Chest

Knee to chest back exercises can help to strengthen the muscles in your lower back. Doctors recommend this exercise to people going through physical therapy and at-home activity (via On Health). When your lower back feels tight, this exercise can help to stretch out those muscles, causing you discomfort. To do this exercise, begin by lying on your back with your knees bent. Then, move one knee up to your chest and hold for 15 -30 seconds before slowly lowering your leg and switching legs. Knee to chest can be done 2-4 times for maximum results (via Very Well Health).

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25. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Balance Exercises

People mostly use this exercise to improve your balance, however, it can actually positively impact your overall back health. Doctors use proprioception to explain a person’s awareness of their body and limbs. This type of exercise increases your awareness and leads to fewer falls and movements that could damage your back further (via Men’s Health). To do this exercise, stand in a fixed position, hold one knee up in the air for ten seconds, then switch to the other leg and repeat (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis).

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24. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Modified Cobra

The modified cobra is a yoga pose that is a great exercise to stretch back muscles and support muscles (via Skimble). Stretches are an essential part of exercise for people with back pain as they help strengthen your muscles and decompress the spine. To do the modified cobra, begin by lying on your stomach, then put the palms of your hands at your sides. You will then take a deep breath and lift your upper body into the air. You’ll feel the stretching in your back, neck, and stomach (via Hendrick Wellness Center).

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23. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Shoulder Exercises

This bodyweight drill may seem harder than it looks, but you can do it because it is great for back pain. Why? Because it targets the rear deltoids, rhomboids, and rotator cuff muscles to strengthen and unlock superior shoulder mobility (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). Start by lying face down on the floor with your neck straight and your arms extended straight above your head on the floor with a neutral wrist position, making your thumbs face toward the ceiling. While keeping your torso against the floor, pinch your shoulder blades together. Then raise both arms towards the ceiling as high as possible. Hold this position for a moment, then lower your arms back toward the floor (via Men’s Journal). That’s the “I.” Perform with your arm diagonally overhead, creating a “Y” position, and then straight out to the sides, making a “T.” 

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22. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Glute Bridges

Glute bridges are an excellent way to exercise your back without causing damage to your spinal discs and muscles. This exercise helps to strengthen your hamstrings, hips, abdomen, glutes, and transverse abdominus, leading to a healthier back (via On Health). To do this exercise, lie on your back with your knees bent. Your heels should be the only part of your foot touching the floor. Now, dig your heels into the floor and lift your lower body into the air. You will hold this position for at least six seconds, then release (via Everyday Health). 

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21. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Pilates

Some types of pilates are a great way to strengthen your back and minimize back pain (via On Health). The exercises done during pilates focus on your abdomen but can positively affect your back as well. The best way to find a pilates regimen that works for your individual needs is to find a class near you. The teachers can help create a customized plan for your back pain and even help you learn how to do exercises at home that will help with your back pain. It’s essential to let the class teacher know about your back pain ahead of time in case there are any movements you shouldn’t be doing with the rest of the class (via Everyday Health). 

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20. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Lifting Weights

Certain types of weight lifting, done in moderation, can help to reduce back pain and strengthen your muscles. Weight lifting shouldn’t cause any discomfort to your back if done correctly (via Everyday Health). The best way to start a weight lifting regimen is to first speak with your doctor to see if weight lifting could benefit your individual needs. Your doctor can offer some insight into what types of weight lifting you should and shouldn’t be doing for your particular case. Be sure to ask which types of weight lifting exercises should be avoided to ensure no acute pain during your workout (via On Health).

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19. Best Exercises for Back Pain: The Dead Bug

The dead bug is an ab workout that is good for back pain. It’s like a plank exercise but reversed, so you are lying on your back. This involves actively pressing your lower back into the floor at all times to ensure that no weight is transferred into the back, and you are more effectively strengthening the transverse abdominis (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). To do this exercise, you lie on your back with your legs and arms extended toward the ceiling. Press your lower back firmly into the floor, and while maintaining this back position, lower one arm toward the floor behind you and the opposite leg toward the floor in front of you so that they form a straight line parallel to the floor. Squeezing through the abs to raise both back toward the ceiling, repeat with your other leg and arm (via Men’s Journal). 

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18. Best Exercises for Back Pain: Wall Sits

Wall sits can be a great exercise for people with back pain. They require minimal effort and allow you to exercise comfortably without putting too much stress on your back. You perform wall sits using the wall as a brace. To do this exercise, begin by standing 10 – 12 inches from a wall (via Men’s Journal). Then, lean into the wall until your back is flat against it. This is where the sitting part comes in. You will begin lowering yourself until your knees are bent. This quick and easy exercise can be done while watching television, doing chores, or even cooking dinner. Your back will begin to strengthen and lead to less pain if you use this exercise daily (via On Health).

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17. Best Exercises for Back Pain: The Bird Dog

An exercise with a funny name, the bird dog, is an excellent lower back exercise for back pain (via Everyday Health). This yoga-born exercise strengthens your core, including the back, while keeping your spine in a neutral position. Bringing yourself into a tabletop position, put your hands directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Pin your lats, and actively press your news and hands into the floor, bracing your core. Raise one hand and the opposite leg to form a straight line parallel to the floor. Keep your torso completely still without wobbling or leaning, hold that position for a moment, then lower both limbs to the floor and repeat with your other arm and leg (via Men’s Journal). 

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16. Best Exercises for Back Pain: The Deadlift 

You complete a deadlift while maintaining a braced and neutral torso with a controlled bar. It can strengthen the entire back, core, and posterior chain to ease chronic back pain. First, you want to stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, grabbing a loaded barbell with your hands that are shoulder-width apart, positioned just outside of your legs. Hold your hips back behind you and brace your core to set up with the bar directly above your feet, just above an inch in front of your shins, which should be vertical. You should feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings at this point. Pulling your shoulder blades down and back creates tension throughout your torso. Stand up as tall as you possibly can, locking your hips out at the tip. Then slowly reverse the movement, returning the barbell to the floor (via Men’s Journal). Make sure to maintain the same level of tension as you go. 

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15. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: The Shoulder Press 

As mentioned above, back squats are not very good for your back, and like back squats, shoulder presses aren’t either. Poor shoulder mobility can cause the person exercising to “dump” the weight into their lower back, which sounds just as bad as it is when performing a shoulder press (via Sunrise Hospital). However, people are likely to arch their back unconsciously with this exercise. This makes the exercise easier and allows you to push more weight, turning a vertical press into an incline one, which isn’t the best for your back (via Men’s Journal). 

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14. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Planks 

Planks seem simple enough, but trainers do not recommend them because many exercisers mess up this activity (via Men’s Journal). It can be a great exercise, however, if done correctly. When performing a back-safe plank, it should be done with a posterior tilt, this means that your glutes are maximally contracted, and your tailbone is “tucked.” Doing this allows the core to take the brunt of the work instead of the lower back muscles (via Sunrise Hospital). 

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13. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: The Superman

We’re not saying an exercise known as the Superman isn’t ideal, but it’s not suitable for anyone struggling with a bulging or herniated disc in the lower back. This is because this exercise can further compress compromised discs (via Sunrise Hospital). As with all of the worst exercises for a bad back, lackluster form contributes to the potential issues here. By doing this exercise, you are “dumping” or putting all your weight into your lower back instead of actively lifting through your shoulders and legs. Trainers recommend this method if you want to exercise with a bad back. This can stress the structures that surround the lumbar spine (via Men’s Journal). 

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12. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: The Deadlift

Okay, we said the deadlift could be beneficial for back pain, which is true when you do it correctly. When not done properly, this type of exercise can, of course, be bad for pain in the back (via Men’s Journal). A properly performed deadlift is arguably the best exercise for many people, but that’s because they know what they are doing and how to do them just so. The most common issue with this exercise is that back pain allows your lower back to dip, your upper back to round, or the bar to travel away from your legs instead of keeping it close up against them (via On Health).

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11. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Toe Touches

Yes, stretching can be good for people experiencing back pain. However, toe touches from a standing position with your legs straightened can often lead to more pain. This is especially important if you have sciatica (via On Health). Toe touches with certain kinds of back pain can lead to unnecessary stress on the ligaments and spinal discs in your back. Instead of doing toe touches, you could try hamstring touches (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). This exercise will minimize damage to your spinal discs and help to strengthen your back.

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10. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Sit-Ups

While sit-ups are great for strengthening your core, they aren’t a good choice for people with back pain. Sit-ups tend to put a strain on your back muscles and spinal discs, leading to more pain instead of relief (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). This exercise is commonly used to strengthen your stomach muscles, but the compression felt by your spine during the sit-up isn’t good for people with back pain. It can actually do more damage to your lumbar spine if done repetitively. The muscles in your hips can also become too tight from repetitive sit-ups, leading to pain in your lower back (via McGeedc).

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9. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Leg Lifts

Leg lifts aren’t the greatest exercise to help strengthen your back and relieve back pain. By lying on your back for an extended period with this exercise, you’re actually causing more damage to your back (via Everyday Health). This ca, and this to more pain instead of relief. There are modified versions meant specifically for people with back pain to try instead. To do a modified leg lift, lie on your back with one leg straight, and one leg bent at the knee. Then, lift the straightened leg for seconds and put it back down. Usually, leg lifts are done with both legs simultaneously, and this modified version puts less stress on your back (via On Health).

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8. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: High-Impact Exercise

High impact exercises are classified as running, jogging, and even jumping jacks. This type of exercise isn’t suited for back pain as it causes compression to your spinal discs (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). It’s best to stay away from these types of activities to avoid further damage to your back. If you have a back injury, it could cause more damage. Be sure to speak with your doctor if you’re interested in a high-impact exercise and think it would benefit your back pain. However, this type of exercise isn’t recommended in most cases and could actually be dangerous (via Everyday Health). 

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7. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Lifting Weights

Okay, we did say lifting weights was okay for back pain exercise. However, you want to be careful when lifting free weights, such as dumbbells because they can add pressure to your back, as well as can cause you to hold your breath (via Men’s Journal). It increases pressure in your abdomen and leads to more back pain. Instead, try light machine weights, and they are safer because you have more control over the weights (via Sunrise Hospital). 

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6. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Certain Sports

Certain types of sports can be harmful to your back. You should avoid sports such as golf, football, soccer, and basketball to prevent more damage to your back. These sports require twisting movements that can make your back pain worse or even cause more injury (via Sunrise Hospital). Sports such as water aerobics are a safer way to exercise your back and avoid further damage to your back (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis). If you’re interested in playing a particular sport, ask your doctor if it’s safe before beginning.

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5. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Running

Running may be a great way to get a workout in after a long day at work for some, but people with back problems could be looking at more damage if they choose to run. Running puts a lot of pressure on your feet, especially when running on gravel or cement (via Everyday Health). This can cause compression in your spine and further damage to your back or even an injury. If you wish to be outdoors, a safer way is to walk. Walking is a great way to exercise your back without doing further damage or causing injury (via Sunrise Hospital).

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4. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Off-Road Biking

Riding a bike is a fun way to get exercise and enjoy the outdoors simultaneously, but it could be dangerous for people with back problems. Off-road biking is considered to be a high-impact exercise. It involves going through rough terrain and making specific movements that could cause more back pain overall. This makes it one of the worst back exercises (via Sunrise Hospital). If you enjoy biking, use a recumbent bike instead. This bike helps to support your lower back and gives you that bike riding experience you’ve been looking for (via South Florida Back, Spine, and Scoliosis).

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3. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Heavy Overhead Weightlifting

Heavy overhead weightlifting can be a great way to strengthen your arms. However, if you have back pain or a back injury, it’s something you should avoid (via Men’s Health). Lifting weights over your head requires a lot of back strength as well as strength in your arms. Any miscalculation in movement could cause an injury and lead to permanent damage to your back. Heavy weightlifting overhead can cause compression in your spinal discs due to incorrectly arching your back. Also, people tend to hold their breath when overhead lifting, which can surprisingly cause more damage (via Sunrise Hospital).

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2. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Incline Leg Presses

An incline leg press machine is a piece of exercise equipment that allows you to sit and use your legs to move weight. This exercise works your glutes, soleus muscles, and quadriceps. It’s not a great exercise for people with back pain as it can cause your back to be injured if done incorrectly (via Sunrise Hospital). When using the machine, your back is flexed in a certain way that can cause compression and pain in your back. Speak with your doctor before using an incline leg press to avoid further pain and damage to your back (via Men’s Health).

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1. Worst Exercises for Back Pain: Back Squats

Back squats aren’t necessarily bad across the board, but you should skip this exercise if you have a bad back (via Sunrise Hospital). What is a back squat exactly? It’s where your elbows are cocked back, with your lower back arched and your buttocks sticking out. This is all formed out of a lack of shoulder mobility. Your pelvis ends up picking up the slack and, in turn, effectively transfers the weight that should be on your core squarely to your lower back that is unbraced, which could aggravate existing back pain if it was already there or create new pains (via Men’s Journal). 

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