Back strengthening and stretching exercises

Dear Alice,

What exercises strengthen your back, particularly your lower back?

Dear Reader,

It’s often all about the pecs and the glutes when you hit the gym but don’t forget about your lower back! The lower back, or lumbar region, is an area that's commonly ignored in strength training, despite the fact that it's a painful area for many people. This is because the lower back region supports most of the weight from the upper body. Pain is caused when there's an issue with how the components of the back fit and move together. There are various causes for lower back pain, including congenital issues, injuries, and degenerative problems, and there are different types of lower back pain, including acute or chronic. With the guidance of a health care provider, such as an orthopedist or physical therapist, you may be able to identify the source of pain in order to establish the appropriate regimen to stretch and strengthen your lower back.

Considering how common back pain is, there have been many types of interventions proposed to alleviate it, many of which include physical activity. Strengthening exercises, as well as stretching, may also help prevent injury and pain in the lower back before it occurs. It's key to focus on the lower back muscles as well as those in areas that support the lower back. These include the hamstrings, hip flexors, and the established “core” muscles (transversus abdominus, multifidus, diaphragm, and pelvic floor muscles), which are responsible for stabilizing the lower back region and coordinating movement. Strength training increases muscle mass in the area that's being worked out, as well as increases bone density. In addition to the potential benefit of preventing and relieving lower back pain, strengthening muscles may increase metabolism and boost energy to increase overall health. Some common strengthening exercises to try may include:

  • Supine twist: Lie on your back on the floor with hips and knees bent to 90 degrees with your feet flat on the floor. Draw in abdominal muscles and slowly, with control, rotate knees to one side keeping hips in contact with the floor; engage obliques to pull knees back to center and repeat on opposite side.
  • Plank: Lie face forward with your forearms/elbows on the floor, then rise up so that you're resting on your forearms and toes. Hold this position for 15 seconds to a minute; progress in increments of 15 seconds.
  • Cobra: Lie on your stomach with your hands to your side, lift your head and chest off the floor; hold your glutes tight and squeeze your shoulder blades together; hold briefly and return to starting position.

There's a difference between strengthening and stretching exercises, and both provide different but complementary benefits. Stretching before engaging in strengthening exercises will help you avoid injuries. Stretching allows the muscles to maintain their flexibility to move properly. Similar to strengthening, it may also boost energy as it increases blood flow to various parts of the body. Some popular stretching exercises include:

  • Hip flexor stretch: Kneel with one knee on the ground, forming a right angle so that your front knee is directly over your foot and ankle. Raise the same side arm as the knee that's on the ground above your head and back, which will cause your pelvis (or hips) to shift forward. The farther back you extend your arm, the more you will feel this stretch. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds each time and you can repeat multiple times. 
  • Adductor stretch: Prop the inside of your ankle up on a chair/table and lean into that side. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds each time and you can repeat multiple times.
  • Cat/cow: On your hands and knees, inhale as you bend your back, creating a "C shape" in your spine and round the tailbone while allowing your chin to rest on your chest. Exhale as you draw your stomach down towards the ground while you take your gaze up. 

The combination of stretching and strengthening has the power to reduce lower back pain occurrences by approximately 30 percent. Furthermore, additional physical activity has the potential to reduce the probability of lower back pain even more. You may consider physical activity such as yoga or swimming, both of which have been proven to be beneficial for strengthening the lower back.

Before beginning any physical activity program, including back-strengthening and stretching exercises, it's wise to seek the advice of a health care provider. They may help to uncover potential causes of back pain such as stress, poor posture, or weight gain, among others. They could also provide additional treatment including medications to reduce inflammation, acupuncture, chiropractic care, and, in the most severe cases, surgery. Additionally, working with a physical therapist or a personal trainer may help you find the exercises that will strengthen your back to meet your specific needs. Overall, the health of your lower back is crucial for the rest of your body to function properly. So, whatever your reason for wanting to try new stretches and strengthening exercise, don’t BACK down!

Last updated Mar 11, 2022
Originally published May 14, 1999

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