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
4-minute read

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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.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.