We sit in the car. We sit at work. We sit at dinner. We sit on the couch after dinner. An unfortunate reality for many of us today is that we live a sedentary lifestyle. Many jobs require sitting for long periods of time and don’t allow us to get up and move around much. Sadly, being sedentary comes with a lot of negative health consequences, one of which is lower back pain.
Lower back pain can be caused by many different things, so finding the actual cause can be tricky. For this reason, it’s important to take a holistic approach when trying to alleviate symptoms. Exercise is one thing you can – and should – try for pain relief.
This simple core workout can be done when you wake up in the morning or anytime during the day, and it’s meant to be an adjunct to your regular exercise routine. If you’re a beginner, it might make you a little sore. If you’re more advanced, it can be used as a warm-up before a run or weight-lifting session or simply as “prehabilitation” to keep symptoms at bay.
As always, consult a medical professional if you are experiencing pain – or before beginning any sort of exercise regimen.
Lower back pain causes
A sedentary lifestyle forces many of us into an anterior pelvic tilt. This is marked by overactive hip flexors and underactive gluteal and abdominal muscles. Living in an anterior pelvic tilt can put a lot of pressure on the lower back anatomy and lead to pain and discomfort.
Many people mistakenly believe that rest is the best way to treat back pain, but the reality is that the best thing you can do is to move! If you find that any movement significantly increases the pain then be sure to consult a physician before going any further. However, most people with lower back pain will find that working through safe movements will alleviate much of the pain.
Furthermore, these movements will help decrease the chance of recurring pain if done regularly and properly.
The Workout: Core Exercises for Back Pain
Perform 3 to 4 rounds, two to three days a week
1. Pelvic Tilts – 10 reps
Lie flat on your back with your knees bent. Your knees and feet should be about hips-width apart, and your feet need to be flat on the ground. Pulling your belly button in toward your spine, push the top of your pelvis (your “hip bones”) into the ground and feel the bottom of your pelvis (your “sit bone”) come off of the ground slightly, then hold briefly. Repeat for 10 repetitions.
This is a very slight movement, but when done properly it will help activate the deep core muscles that you will need to perform the following exercises. If you feel that you have the hang of this exercise, then you can skip over it after round 1, as it is more of an activation exercise.
2. Hip Bridge – 10-15 reps
The hip bridge will help activate and strengthen your gluteal muscles (your butt), which are vital to a strong core. Begin in the same position as the pelvic tilt exercise. Go into a pelvic tilt, and then squeeze your glutes to raise your hips up towards the ceiling. Hold briefly at the top, keeping your core and glutes engaged, and then lower your hips back to the ground in a controlled manner. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
3. Dead Bug – 10-12 reps per side
The dead bug is a crucial exercise for core strength as your core muscles are forced to maintain control while lengthening and shortening your limbs. Dead bugs also incorporate almost every core muscle, hitting the transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis and hip flexors.
To perform a dead bug, lie on your back with your arms straight up toward the ceiling and your knees stacked over your hips (feet off the ground). There should be a 90-degree angle between your torso and thighs as well as your thighs and shins. From this position, pull your belly button in towards your spine and press your lower back into the ground. Your back should stay flat against the ground the entire time to ensure that you are activating your anterior core muscles and not your back muscles.
From here, slowly lower opposite arm and leg until parallel with the ground, and then bring them back to the starting position. Really focus on controlling the motion with your core.
Repeat with the other side. If you are a beginner, you may want to ditch the arms and focus just on lowering one leg at a time. Furthermore, you can choose to keep your knees bent throughout the motion and simply tap your heel on the ground instead of straightening your leg out entirely. This will reduce the force being put on your muscles and will make for a slightly easier variation.
4. Cat Camel – 10-12 reps
The cat camel help stretch and strengthen the lumbar extensors and flexors. This helps loosen and stabilize the core.
Flip over into a quadruped position (on your hands and knees), ensuring hands are directly under shoulders and knees are under hips. Take this exercise slowly as you do not want to bend into a position that causes pain. Begin by arching your back and looking up towards the ceiling. Once you have gone as far as you can, pause briefly, and then round your back and look down towards your hips. Pause in this position and then repeat for 10-12 more repetitions.
5. Bird Dog – 10-12 reps per side
The bird dog works similarly on the posterior chain as the dead bug does the anterior chain. It also has an added balance component, making it a core-killer.
From the cat camel position, find a neutral spine or a flat back. Pull your belly button in toward your spine to activate your deep abdominals. At the same time, lift you opposite arm and leg off the ground, reaching and lengthening until they are parallel with the ground and in line with your body. Imagine your arm and leg are being pulled in opposite directions.
There are two very important things to keep in mind when doing the bird dog. First, make sure that as you are lifting your arm and leg you are not arching through your back. Your back should remain neutral throughout the entire movement to really test the core. Second, do not let your hips rotate or drop as you move; your hips must stay parallel to the ground at all times. Flow through 10 to 12 of these.
6. Elbow Side Plank—30-60 seconds per side
This at-home core blaster ends with the side plank to really finish off those core muscles. The side plank is a must-do to prevent lower back pain. It engages all of your deep core muscles as well as your obliques and hip abductors (outer hip muscles), and it has you working in a different plane of motion. There are many variations for the side plank to challenge you no matter your fitness level.
To perform the side plank, roll onto one side of your body and then prop yourself up so you are resting on your elbow. Make sure your elbow is directly under your shoulder. From here, align your shoulders, hips and ankles so that you could draw a straight line through them.
If you are a beginner, bend your bottom knee and use it as support. If you are more advanced, keep both legs straight out and stack your feet. Lift your hips off of the ground and hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds. Then repeat on the other side.
7. Psoas stretch—30-60s per side
While this isn’t an “exercise” per se, it is a great stretch that will help get you out of that anterior pelvic tilt. The psoas is the hip flexor often responsible for tight hips and lower back pain. Hold this stretch at the end of your core workout, for a great hip opener!
Start in a lunge position with your back knee resting on the ground. Squeeze the glute of the back leg. This may be enough of a stretch for those with very tight psoas, but if you don’t feel it yet, continue to push forward into that hip. You should feel the stretch right in the front of that back hip. Make sure you keep your glute squeezed throughout the motion and that you do not arch through your back.
After you have done your rounds of the core workout, hold this stretch for 30 to 60 seconds per side for 2 rounds.
Now go enjoy the day without having to worry about that nagging back pain!