ôô

How to Strengthen Your Lower Back and Avoid Injury

"Oooh, my aching back!" doesn't have to be a thing. Strengthening your lower back can help alleviate and prevent that dreaded pain. Get-Fit Guy has a few simple exercises to get you started.

By
Brock Armstrong
6-minute read
Episode #514
The Quick And Dirty
  • There is a large complex of muscles that help support and move your spine.
  • Sitting too much can allow those muscles to get weak and vulnerable to injury.
  • Doing some exercises to strengthen those lower back muscles can keep you safe and strong.

If you are one of those unlucky people who has “thrown their back out,” you know that sinking feeling that comes after picking something up the wrong way, getting bumped the wrong way during a sporting event, or reaching into a deep drawer or up onto a high shelf and suddenly feeling a twinge of pain surging through the muscles around your lower spine.

To avoid injury, it is crucial to have proper strength in the lower back.

If you take a look at an anatomy chart, you will see that there is a large and complex group of muscles all working together to support your back. These muscles help hold your body upright and allow the trunk of your body to move, twist and bend in many directions.

Specifically, the three back muscles that help your spine function are:

  1. The extensor muscles. These are attached to the back of the spine and help us stand and lift things. The extensors include a large pair of muscles in the lower back, called erector spinae, which hold up the spine and gluteal muscles.

  2. The flexor muscles. These are attached to the front of the spine and enable flexion of the spine, bending forward, lifting, and arching of the lower back.

  3. The oblique muscles. These muscles are attached to the sides of the spine and help rotate the spine and also do most of the work to help you maintain proper posture.

Spine, hip, and shoulder flexibility also play a role in allowing the lower back to move through a proper range of motion. But to avoid injury, it is crucial to have proper strength in the lower back.

The lower back becomes stronger when it is forced to extend against a resistance. There are several movements that allow this extension to happen. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the all too common issue of lower back pain.

What causes lower back pain?

If you want an excellent overview of what causes lower back pain in the general population, I would encourage you to read an article by the Quick and Dirty Tips former House Call Doctor, What Causes Back Pain. Among fit folks, lower back pain most commonly occurs as a result of the following:

  • Picking a heavy weight up off the floor or setting one down haphazardly.

  • Bending from the back rather than bending at the hips and 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.

  • Slouching in front of a desk or computer for many hours per day and then transferring that same slouching body geometry to your workouts. 

  • Exercising on equipment that is not the correct size or properly set-up for your body. Whether it's a bicycle or weight training machine, one of the most common errors is improper seat height. For more on seat height, you can read the article How to Use Weightlifting Machines.

Exercises to avoid when you have lower back pain

Research shows that lying down longer than a day or two isn’t helpful for relieving back pain. In fact, people can recover more quickly from a back injury without any bed rest at all. Even after some back surgeries, the sooner you start moving (in particular, walking), the faster you are likely to improve.

People can recover more quickly from a back injury without any bed rest at all.

Also, a Systematic Review of the Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain indicated that exercise can increase the blood flow to the lower back area, which may reduce stiffness and speed up the healing process.

But while walking and some other aerobic exercise is helpful movement, avoiding going too fast and too hard is a good idea. You may also want to avoid:

  • Any exercise where you hold a free weight out and 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 actually feels painful. If an exercise hurts, don’t do it!

Because there are many different types of lower back injuries, always listen to your body. An exercise that feels OK for some people with lower back pain may be extremely painful for others. Listen to your body. 

5 exercises to strengthen your lower back

OK, now it is time to get into some ways that you can strengthen your lower back and potentially avoid lower back pain altogether. Again, do not do these exercises if you already have lower back pain and stop immediately if they cause any lower back pain. 

I would rather you “waste a workout” doing too few with too light a weight than overdo it and hurt yourself.

I will not give specific reps or sets for these exercises because the old issue of “too much, too soon” is definitely an possibility here. As always, if you're doing these exercises for the first time (or the first time in a while), err on the side of doing too few. I would rather you “waste a workout” doing too few with too light a weight than overdo it and hurt yourself.

Back Extensions

You can use a machine or a yoga (or exercise) ball that can support your weight. Be careful not to hyper-extend during this exercise.

To do this exercise, get on the machine or ball, face-down. Flex downward at the waist, until you are at approximately 90 degrees, then reverse the movement and extend until your torso is straight.

For added resistance, hold a weight against your chest or the back of your head.

Standing Rotations

You can start doing these with just your own bodyweight. Then gradually move up to doing them with a hockey stick (or broom handle) across your shoulders. Eventually, you can pull on some resistance bands to really work your lower back and abdominal muscles.

To do this exercise, start in a standing position and rotate your torso (upper body and shoulders) from one side to the other side. Make sure to squeeze your obliques and abdominals as you reach the end of each rotation.

For bonus points, can pause briefly at the terminal aspect of each repetition so you aren't just relying on momentum to keep you moving.

Saxon Bends

Use a light set of dumbbells for this side-bending strength exercise, and remember to only move through a comfortable range of motion.

To do this exercise, hold a pair of lightweight dumbbells over your head with your elbows bent slightly. Make sure to keep your back straight and only bend directly to the side, as far as possible, without twisting or rotating your upper body. Pause and then return to an upright position before you bend to the other side.

Hip Bridges

The main target muscle in the Hip Bridge is the erector spinae, which I mentioned earlier as a muscle that is responsible for supporting your spine. 

To do this exercise, start on your back with your knees bent, your arms by your hips, and your feet about hip-width apart with your heels up close to your buttocks. Push up through your heels and lift your hips off the ground while contracting your glutes. At the top of the movement, you want to create one straight diagonal line from your shoulders all the way up to your knees. Pause in that diagonal position and then lower yourself back down—slowly. 

Dumbbell Deadlifts

These can be performed with one arm, both arms, dumbbells, or barbells. They're a highly functional lower-back-strengthening exercise.

To do this exercise, stand with feet hip-width apart. Hold dumbbells (or something else heavy) in front of hips with your palms facing your thighs. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, inhale and hinge forward at the hips, and then knees, as you lower the dumbbells down and along the front of your legs. Make sure to pause when your torso is nearly parallel to the ground. Then exhale and drive through your mid-foot and return to the standing position.

During this entire movement, it is important to maintain a neutral (or straight) spine and also keep the weight close to your body throughout.

Listen to your doctor

By taking care of and strengthening your lower back, you will hopefully avoid tweaking it or throwing it out. And aside from staying injury and pain-free, a strong back will serve you well in many ways in your athletic and day-to-day life.

But remember, back strengthening exercise tips don't substitute for medical advice. If you have acute or chronic back pain, you should always follow your physician’s recommendations. However, if your doctor tells you to simply rest for a few weeks, I would encourage you to ask about alternatives that keep you (gently) moving.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.