Plus, strengthening through low-back exercises can make your body more agile in many ways. “Some studies have shown these lower back muscles help reduce low back pain, but mostly though, loading these muscles to improve strength causes the back to adapt and become resilient to different forces and movements,” explains Leada Malek, DPT, CSCS. A stronger core (which includes your abs, back, and glutes) can reduce your risk of low-back pain, both acute and chronic. So, it’s smart to include low-back exercises that strengthen these muscles as a preventative measure!
“The back muscles function as part of the ‘posterior chain,’ or major muscles that live along the back of your body, and these muscles help us stand upright, lift things efficiently, and propel us forward,” says Dr. Malek.
The muscles that surround the spine (erector spinae, multifidus, transverse abdominis, obliques, quadratus lumborum, to name a few) help with core control. The glutes and hamstrings aid in extending the hips while these muscles stabilize the back. The glutes and hamstrings also work with the low back muscles to help you lift things off the ground, transfer loads from your lower- to upper-body, and also while walking or running. “So anything that affects how well these muscles function, like joint mobility, weakness, or injury, may play a role in how efficient the low-back muscles work too,” says Dr. Malek. “If the hamstrings and glutes aren’t helping to distribute the load, then more will be placed on the low back."
While the muscles and bones in your low back were designed to support loads (like the weight of your entire upper body), too much pressure on the area can lead to tightness and soreness. “Tight low-back muscles can sometimes come from quadratus lumborum [the muscles you'd feel if you were to place your hands on your low back on either side of your spine], which means there’s a weakness in the back that may not manifest until it’s forced to work,” says Dr. Malek. This doesn’t always signify pain—but if you have tightness in the area, and weaker low back muscles, then strengthening is a great option to improve both. Aim to do one to three rounds of 10–10 reps of each move (per side where applicable).
How to do it: Start seated on the floor in front of a couch or bench with knees bent and feet flat. Place hands behind head, tuck pelvis, squeeze glutes, and lift hips into air in line with knees, bringing shoulder blades and head to rest of couch or bench. Lower glutes back to tap or hover a few inches above floor, then raise then again till thighs are parallel to floor for one rep. You can add a weight on top of the hips if desired for more resistance.
Why it works: This exercise targets the glutes with hip extension starting from a hinge. “It’s a great way to target the posterior chain, and adding a weight adds another challenge for strengthening and learning to push with the hips and not the low back for this exercise,” says Dr. Malek.
How to do it: Stand with feet hips-width apart, arms straight and palms resting on thighs. Then push glutes back to hinge at hips (keep a soft bend in knees but don't squat), while tilting torso forward until parallel to the floor and sliding hands down front of legs to shins. Reverse motion to return to start for one rep. As a variation, you can perform this exercise on one leg by extending the opposite leg straight behind you as you lower your torso, aiming to bring both parallel to the floor.
Why it works: “Hip hinging is an incredibly important motion to learn for proper lifting mechanics and plays a role in how we move day to day,” says Dr. Malek. Plus, this exercise targets the glutes, hamstrings, and back stabilizers.
How to do it: Start on all fours, draw your belly button toward your spine to engage your deep core muscles, then extend your right arm straight forward and your left leg straight back until both are parallel to the floor. The goal is to keep your toros squared to the floor the whole time. Slowly lower both limbs back down and repeat on the opposite side for one rep.
Why it works: This move targets the smaller back stabilizers along with the larger back muscles and glutes. “It's a great one to do when dealing with an acute bout of low back pain,” says Dr. Malek.
How to do it: Start seated on the floor with feet elevated on a couch, bench, or chair, legs extended, and arms straight with hands just behind glutes, palms flat on the floor, and fingers facing. you. Draw bellybutton toward spine, tuck pelvis, squeeze glutes, and lift hips into air in line with knees, keeping collarbones wide. Pause here for a moment, then lower seat back down to floor for one rep.
Why it works: This move targets the entire posterior chain, especially the back muscles responsible for extending your spine, so it’s an all around major power move for the back, as well as the lower body.
How to do it: Start lying on your right side with your left leg ontop of your right so that your ankles, knees, and hips are parallel. Bend knees slightly so that heels are in line with glutes. Prop upper body up on your right elbow, which should be under your right shoulder (arm should be bent at 90 degrees and forearm should be perpendicular to body). Then lift hips into air so body forms straight line from head to knees. Hold the position 30 to 60 seconds, which is one rep. For an extra challenge, keep legs straight and raise entire body off of the floor.
Why it works: “Isometric holds for planks build endurance, and this move targets the lateral [i.e. side] low-back muscles, core, and glutes—all great muscles to contribute to a strong low back,” says Dr. Malek.
How to do it: Stand tall and hold a weight, gallon jug of water, or heavy bag (like a backpack filled with books) in one hand by the handle. Draw bellybutton to spine so core is engaged, resist leaning to side holding the weight, then walk the length of the room or your exercise and return back to start for one rep.
Why it works: Think about how many times you’ve had to carry something on one side! This will help prevent tweaking your low back for whenever these times pop up. “The farmer’s carry targets lateral muscles like the quadratus lumborum and helps build resiliency in a very functional movement, as you stabilize through the walk,” says Dr. Malek.
Start slow—work in a small range of motion first and with a load/resistance you feel you can be successful with. “It’s important to learn the motion and get comfortable with it first, and nothing should ‘hurt’ when you do these,” says Dr. Malek.
Performing these exercises may feel uncomfortable because they’re new, but you shouldn't be in pain. That's a sign to dial it back, asap, and continue to gradually advance.
“True proper form is individualized per person, but following these tips is a great starting point, and if there’s a position you can’t get in, know there’s still a way for you to be successful at it (it may help to see a PT though),” Dr. Malek adds. Every body works differently, so if you feel stuck then speak with a pro.
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