Ever bend over to pick up a piece of paper, a kid’s toy, or a dropped pen and realize you’re not sure if you can get back up?
After one deadlift too many during my senior year of college, I felt like a million years old every time I moved. I couldn’t walk up stairs or get into bed without my bones crackling painfully, and I missed months of my last track season. I was lucky—I didn’t need surgery, just lots of hours of physical therapy—but it was the wakeup call I needed to pay more attention to my body.
If you’re like one of the 31 million Americans struggling with lower back pain, you know it can make life difficult. According to the American Chiropractic Association, 80% of the population experiences back pain at some point in their lives.
Meet the Expert
- Jacob VanDenMeerendonk, PT, DPT, is a licensed physical therapist in California.
- Leada Malek, PT, DPT, CSCS, SCS, is a licensed physical therapist and board-certified sports specialist located in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What Causes Lower Back Pain
Lower back pain comes from a variety of reasons, from repetitive motions (hello, cell phones) to more traumatic injuries. “Our lifestyles have been very forward-oriented on the computers or on our phones, so the thoracic spine gets really locked up,” says Jacob VanDenMeerendonk, PT, DPT.
“Structurally, it’s about joint mobility versus stiffness, which may result in too much movement in the spine, or too little movement,” adds Leada Malek, PT, DPT, CSCS, SCS.
Much of that comes from relative weakness of supporting muscles. While your lower back bothers you, it’s likely from something lower or higher up on your body—hamstrings, glutes, core, or shoulders. Says Malek, “Deep core weakness is a leading cause for a lot of people, as well as glute and hamstring weakness or muscle imbalances like tight hip flexors, which can pull the pelvis forward or put more pressure on your spine, which changes the angle.”
It’s all in the hips, agrees VanDenMeerendonk. “Back pain is related to the mobility of the hips, thoracic spine, or shoulders, so we have to look at areas other than the back itself when we’re trying to treat a patient,” he says. “A lot of times, I look at different areas other than the lower back to try to heal it.”
7 Exercises to Prevent (or Heal) From Back Pain
“As a physical therapist, I’ll tell you we can treat pretty much everything,” says VanDenMeerendonk. “It’s really important to find a physical therapist that can figure out exactly what’s going on in your body. In this day and age, we so often see healthcare as reactive. But with lower-back pain, there’s so much you can do that’s preventive.”
Incorporating mobility work into your workout routine—whether that’s swapping yoga or Pilates into your weekly schedule or extending your warmup and warm-down to include more stretching and foam rolling—can be a great place to start.
“Make sure that you’re maintaining your mobility, flexibility, and strength,” says Malek. “Being able to incorporate this mobility makes sure your back doesn’t get too stiff and can counteract the effects of sitting at a computer all day.”
Where you need to be careful, though, is with injury. “Orthopedic injuries, like disc injuries, a pinched nerve, or lumbar radicular atrophy, can cause muscular dysfunction,” says Malek. Healing from a car accident or sports injury can be very different from classic preventive maintenance, so be sure to consult your doctor, trainer, or physical therapist before trying these exercises.
If you’re struggling with lower-back pain, or want to prevent back pain in the future, try these physical therapist–recommended moves.
Thread the Needle
Start in a child’s pose, hips back and shoulders stretched out wide. Then, thread one arm through the opening of your shoulders to stretch out your mid-to-upper back. This simple twist can be a great option to explore your current mobility and whether or not there’s any asymmetry in your back. “Everyone should be able to do it,” says VanDenMeerendonk. “It’s a good beginner thoracic mobility exercise.”
One of the easiest ways to prevent back pain is learning how to engage your deep stabilizer muscles in your core, called bracing, or working on your pelvic tilt. “I teach people this first,” says Malek. “If you’ve ever been sore from laughing so hard, that’s the muscle you’re going for. This muscle is so important because it wraps underneath all of the other core muscles.”
Malek recommends starting with diaphragm breathing. “A huge portion of lifting injuries happen because people forget how to breathe. Bear down on your core and engage your diaphragm, breathing deeply.”
Both VanDenMeerendonk and Malek highlight core work as the most important way to prevent lower back pain, particularly planks. “Core work is always a good idea,” says VanDenMeerendonk. “Everyone can always use a little more strength in their core, so it fires more than your lower back.”
“My go-to for everyone is planks,” Malek says. She agrees that “they’re so beneficial because planks are an isometric, deep core activation that hits the most important muscles.”
To hold a plank, get into a push-up position, with your forearms or wrists directly under your shoulders and your body in a straight line. Practice holding it without leaning too far forward or backward and keeping your glutes in line with your shoulders. From there, you can add variations, like plank jacks, mountain climbers, or side planks and rotations.
“Weak glutes, weak hip rotators, and weak hamstrings all control how your back folds forward,” says Malek. “Glute bridges and hamstring curls are super high on the list for back pain, because that’s one sequencing of movement that gets lost.”
Lie down on your back with your feet planted on the ground and knees straight up, as if you were going to do a crunch. Then, squeeze your glutes and push your hips toward the ceiling. Experiment with lifting and lowering one leg or the other for more oomph.
Opening up your hips with stretches like figure four, pigeon, or the world’s greatest stretch can give you more flexibility in your hips, putting less pressure on your lower back. “When we’re going down into squat positions or something like that, and you don’t have proper hip mobility, the mechanics are going to be off,” says VanDenMeerendonk. “A lot of stress gets displaced on the lower back.”
This exercise helps you practice proper posture. Stand tall, chin level and shoulders rolled back, holding a weight in each hand. Then, walk slowly but in a straight line, maintaining posture the entire time. “The weights are going to cause your body to want to sway,” says Malek. “To control it, you have to maintain a strong posture to carry the heavy load. It’s super functional, because we carry grocery bags, gym bags, and suitcases all the time.”
While farmer’s carries are a popular CrossFit Games staple, you don’t need a ton of weight. “I like to start with under 10 pounds,” says Malek. “You can feel the work even with a lighter weight.”
Modified Cobra Pose
Another way to stretch out your lower back is a modified cobra pose, sometimes called a press-up. “Lay on your stomach, squeeze your glutes, and lift up your ribs, drawing in your lower abs,” coaches VanDenMeerendonk. “It’s like you’re about to do a superman, but your legs don’t go up too high. You’re not actually arching your back, just activating it.”