If you’ve ever suffered from low back pain, you have probably received tons of treatment recommendations from friends.
For example, some people swear by heating pads. Others won’t go anywhere without their TENS machine.
However, there is one treatment that tends to work best for nearly all cases of low back pain: exercise.
Exercise for Low Back Pain
Importantly, the reader should understand “exercise” can mean many different things. With regard to exercise for low back pain, however, I’m referring to core strengthening and mobility movements.
Certainly, cardiovascular exercise and resistance training have their places in an exercise plan.
These modes of exercise can help to keep the heart, joints, and muscles healthy. However, when it comes to reducing and preventing low back pain, core strengthening is key (1).
The Corset Effect: Using the Abs Effectively
If you’re familiar with some very old fashion trends, you may know about corsets. For the uninitiated, corsets are garments that women used to wear to keep their waists looking slim.
In fairly recent times, researchers have found that the use of braces and belts can actually address many cases of low back pain. These tight-fitting implements provide increased stability for the back, and work just like a corset!
Fortunately, most people don’t have to resort to bracing or restrictive clothing to eliminate back pain. Rather, all they need is a consistent abdominal strengthening exercise.
In fact, there is an ab muscle that is referred to as the “corset muscle”. This muscle is more technically known as the transversus abdominis (2). It essentially “compresses” the lower portion of the trunk when contracted.
When the transversus abdominis and the other muscles of the core are kept strong, back pain can often be managed, minimized, or even eliminated.
6 Simple Exercises for Back Pain Relief
In this section, I will outline 6 exercises that can be performed by anyone. Each of the following exercises will have different parameters and recommendations.
These specific parameters will be included within the individual exercise descriptions.
Whether you have low back pain currently, or are hoping to prevent the issue from ever occurring, these exercises are for you!
1. TA Holds
This exercise emphasizes the “corset muscle”, described in the previous section. In all honesty, isolating the TA is not easy to do. It takes practice and you may benefit from the guidance of a skilled physical therapist to learn this exercise.
Target Muscles: Transversus abdominis.
How to Perform
- Lying on your back with your knees bent, and feet flat on the floor, place both hands on your abdomen.
- Gently tighten your TA by imagining you are blowing out a candle.
- Hold this position for 10 seconds, rest briefly, then repeat for 10 repetitions.
- This exercise should be performed at least 3 times a week but can be completed daily, if desired.
2. Supine Adductor Stretch
Weak, tight pelvic and leg muscles often contribute to low back pain. When your inner thigh muscles are extremely tight, you can experience pain and pressure throughout your hips and low back. This exercise relaxes said muscles and can provide relief of low back pain.
Target Muscles: Adductor group
How to Perform
- Lie on your back in “hooklying” with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground.
- Slowly allow both of your knees to fall to either side of your body, creating a stretching sensation in your inner thighs.
- Hold the stretch for 10 seconds, performing 10 repetitions per session.
- You can perform this exercise daily if you wish. However, you should complete the movement as described at least 3 times a week.
- Throughout the duration of the exercise, ensure that you keep your abdominal muscles tight and active.
- If this exercise causes you discomfort, you can modify the movement by only stretching one leg at a time.
3. Side Planks
Depending on how severe your back pain is, you may need to modify the side plank as indicated in the exercise description. However, once you master this movement, you will start to feel incredible levels of stability throughout your core.
Target Muscles: External/internal obliques, rectus abdominis, lats, various shoulder, and leg muscles.
How to Perform
- Lie on your right side, with your right forearm resting on the ground.
- Place the outside of your right foot on the floor and lift your hips off the ground.
- At this point, your body should be in a straight line from your head down to your toes.
- Hold this plank for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times on each side per session.
- You may decide to perform this exercise every day, but you should aim for at least 3 sessions a week.
If this exercise is too hard, you have a number of options for making it easier:
- Place your forearm on an elevated surface.
- Perform the exercise with your knees on the floor.
- Instead of “holding” the contraction, perform slow, controlled reps in which you lift your hips up and down from the ground. Perform 10 reps per set, 3 sets per session, and complete on both sides.
On the other hand, if this exercise is too easy, you can make it harder in the following ways:
- Place your feet on an elevated surface.
- Elevate your top leg as you hold the plank.
- Place your hand on the ground instead of your forearm.
In exercise 5 of this list, these same modifications will apply. The only difference is that you’ll be performing a regular plank instead of a side plank!
Squats are one of the most foundational exercises ever created. They are functional, easily modified, and a great movement for overall health.
That being said, if you have knee problems or other issues which make squatting impossible, talk with your PT about possible modifications.
Target Muscles: Quads, glutes, calves, various stabilizers throughout the trunk.
How to Perform
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart.
- Slowly bend your knees and keep your back straight as you lower your buttocks toward the ground.
- Once you’ve reached the bottom of the movement, begin to reverse the motion, standing back up to the starting point.
- Repeat the pattern indicated above for 10 repetitions per set, 3 sets per session, 3-4 sessions per week.
If this exercise causes you pain, you may elect to modify it by holding onto a stable surface as you squat.
Alternatively, once this exercise becomes easier, consider adding some weight to the movement in the form of dumbbells held in both hands.
Much like the side plank variation described in exercise 3, planks are a terrific way to increase core endurance and strength. The movement can be modified in a ton of different ways and offers countless benefits for back pain sufferers.
Target Muscles: Rectus abdominis, external/internal obliques, lats, hip flexors, various stabilizers of the spine
How to Perform
- Start with both forearms and the toes of both feet on the ground.
- Your elbows should be directly underneath your shoulders and your toes should be roughly hip-width apart.
- Lift your hips off of the ground so that your back creates one straight line from your head to your feet.
- Hold this position, with your abdominal muscles tight, for 30 seconds and repeat 4 times per set, 1 set per session, 3-7 sessions per week.
For modifications, see the list provided in exercise 3 (side planks) above.
6. LTR (Lower Trunk Rotations)
Lower trunk rotations involve a gentle, rocking motion that can be performed by virtually anyone. This exercise feels so good that you may even decide to do it multiple times a day, every day!
Target Muscles: Hip internal/external rotators, obliques, spinal stabilizers
How to Perform
- Start by lying on your back in “hooklying”, with your feet flat on the ground and your knees bent to a comfortable angle.
- Slowly rock both knees toward the right side.
- Once you feel a stretch, hold the position for 10 seconds, then repeat on the left side.
- Complete 12 repetitions to each side, 1 set per session, 1-2 sessions per day, every day.
Back pain affects millions of individuals every year. Thankfully, with just some simple stretching and mobility exercises, most people can find relief. If you’re suffering from back pain, give these exercises a try and see what you think!
All cases of back pain stem from different causes. This article is not intended to be a replacement for a thorough examination by a licensed medical provider. Always consult your doctor if you have specific questions pertaining to your health.
- Akhtar, M. W., Karimi, H., & Gilani, S. A. (Akhtar, M. W., Karimi, H., & Gilani, S. A. (2017). Effectiveness of core stabilization exercises and routine exercise therapy in management of pain in chronic non-specific low back pain: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Pakistan journal of medical sciences, 33(4), 1002–1006. https://doi.org/10.12669/pjms.334.12664
- Lynders C. (2019). The Critical Role of Development of the Transversus Abdominis in the Prevention and Treatment of Low Back Pain. HSS journal : the musculoskeletal journal of Hospital for Special Surgery, 15(3), 214–220. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11420-019-09717-8