Can I Exercise with Lower Back Pain?

Learn about how low back pain happens, how to exercise if your low back hurts, and how to stay fit when you have a low back injury.

Ben Greenfield,
July 19, 2010

Do you know the most common complaint among weekend warriors, serious athletes, and the average recreation exerciser? Aside from being hungrier than the average person, many athletes deal with lower back pain at some point in their lives. Whether it manifests as an ache on one side, a shooting pain down the butt and legs, or general soreness in the low and mid-back area, lower back pain can be a serious barrier to getting fit.

What Causes Lower Back Pain?

If you want a very good overview of what causes lower back pain in the general population, then you should read this article by the House Call Doctor “What Causes Back Pain”. Among physically active individuals, lower back pain most commonly occurs as a result of the following:

  • Picking a weight off the floor or setting one down incorrectly.

  • Bending from the back rather than bending from the knees.

  • Performing a high amount of impact based movement before the body has warmed up, or before the body is fit enough to absorb the impact.,

  • Repeatedly bending and extending the low back by doing hundreds of crunches or low back extensions, two popular exercises that can be over-utilized.

  • Exercising on equipment that is not properly set-up. Whether on a bicycle or weight training machine, one of the most common errors is improper seat height. For more on seat height, read the article “How to Use Weightlifting Machines.

How to Exercise with Lower Back Pain

The severity of your injury will significantly affect which exercises you are able to perform. For example, if you have debilitating pain that keeps you completely couch-ridden, you will likely need to wait several days before doing anything other than standing up and sitting down. However, if your pain is manageable and you can stand, walk, and lift light objects, you can easily stay fit with the following modes of exercise:

Aqua jogging: I have a comprehensive article about aqua jogging on my blog. Because this form of cardio is non-weight bearing, there is very low impact on the back. Furthermore, the water can actually help to relieve pain. You can perform one to five minute intervals of hard water running followed by easy water jogging, or you can do a series of short water sprints followed by long periods of aerobic movement or swimming.

Swimming: Speaking of swimming, it’s a form of cardio that’s also easy on the back--but you may need to adjust your stroke so that you are not fully extending your body, which can aggravate an injured low back muscle. Backstroke and breaststroke are often well-tolerated by those with lower-back injuries.

Water aerobics: Similar to aqua jogging, water aerobics is low impact and easy on the back. Most water aerobics classes involve marching, hopping, and skipping in waist deep water, while hoisting light, Styrofoam dumbbells overhead.

Always follow your doctor’s advice about exercising when injured.

Weight machines: Believe it or not, not all exercises that can be done when you have low back pain need to be done in the water. If you are pain free in a seated position, then the controlled motion of weight machines can allow you to exercise without the risk and balance requirements of free weights. While exercising on weight machines, be sure to sit up straight and suck in your stomach so that your abdominal muscles support your low back. But be careful, because weight machine exercises such as abdominal crunches and low back extensions may actually aggravate a low back injury.

Body weight exercises: Because the weight is relatively light, exercises such as knee push-ups and body weight squats can maintain lean muscle while you are injured.

Recumbent bicycle: Though sitting upright on a bike or running on a treadmill can leave you cringing from low back pain, sitting in an upright position on a recumbent bicycle can allow you to comfortably burn calories. If your back pain is not radiating into your legs, the elliptical trainer is another form of cardio that will allow you to exercise with a low back injury.

Which Exercises Should You Avoid When You Have Low Back Pain?

In addition to exercising caution with high-impact activities such as sprinting and hard running on a treadmill, you should also avoid:

Any exercise in which you hold a free weight away from your body. Common exercises that fall into this category include side raises, front raises, back bends, side bends, and dumbbell overhead presses.

Any exercise that involves repetitive bending at the waist: such as crunches, low back extensions, squats, or deadlifts.

Any exercise that is painful! Even if it wasn’t mentioned in this article, if an exercise hurts, then don’t do it. Because there are many different kinds of lower back injuries, an exercise that works for some may be painful for others. Listen to your body.

A Sample Workout When You Have Lower Back Pain

Here is how a week of getting fit might look if you have a low back pain injury.

Monday: 30 minutes morning walk, followed by 30 minutes of aqua-jogging in the afternoon or evening, with 2 minute hard water running followed by 2 minute easy jogging.

Tuesday: A light warm-up, then 3 sets of 12 repetitions of machine chest press, machine shoulder press, machine rows, machine pull-downs, machine seated leg curls and machine leg extensions.

Wednesday: 30 minutes morning walk, followed by 30 minutes on the recumbent bicycle in the afternoon or evening, with 4 minutes of hard pedaling followed by 2 minutes of easy pedaling.

Thursday: A light warm-up, then 5 sets of 10 repetitions of body weight squats, knee or regular push-ups, dumbbell curls, and dumbbell cable triceps pushdowns.

Friday: 30 minutes morning walk, followed by 30 minutes on the elliptical trainer in the afternoon or evening, with 4 series of 2 minute efforts of 10 seconds hard, 10 seconds easy.

Weekend: A long hike.

Listen To Your Doctor

As you can see, with creativity, variety and a smart training plan, there is no reason that you need to gain weight and become de-conditioned when you injure your lower back. You should not consider this to be medical advice, and you should follow a physician’s recommendation for movement about an injured joint. However, if your doctor tells you to simply rest for 2-4 weeks, you need to specifically ask them about alternatives to that all-too-common prescription. There's no reason that you can't stay in lean and fit while rehabilitating your lower back!

But that's not it! Click here for my Quick Tip on staying fit while injured, or go here for more about exercising with lower back pain.

Lower Back Pain image from Shutterstock