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Exercises for Lower-Back Pain

Lower-back pain might get you down, but it doesn’t have to take you out. This program can keep you moving to come back stronger than ever.

Person doing foam-roller glute bridge

Lower-back pain affects some 80 percent of Americans. And though they might be tempted to reach for meds or make a beeline for the couch when it flares up, exercise is a more effective — and increasingly common — treatment.

But for many sufferers, working out when their lower back is tight, tweaked, or tender is much easier said than done.

“There is a misbelief that pain and fear necessarily equal damage,” says Mark Schneider, a strength coach specializing in injury rehab and pain management. When something hurts, it’s logical to want to protect it with rest; it’s hard to imagine that physical activity counts as TLC. But that’s precisely what it is: Even when you’re sore, movement can help.

Strength training, in particular, can build both physical and emotional resilience.

And yet the key to motivating yourself to exercise when pain and fear are blaring like alarm bells isn’t as simple as knowing exercise is good for you.

When you’re in pain, it’s important to find ways to move that don’t hurt, Schneider explains. He recommends making pain-free modifications to common lifts — including asymmetrical, unilateral, and rotational stances — that allow you to move freely.

“If you can add more weight to your body in a position that doesn’t hurt, you’re getting stronger overall,” he says.

This, he adds, allows your body to self-correct pain, and it gets you to “a place where you can trust yourself more, do what you enjoy in life, and experience joy in your body without fear.”

WEB EXTRA!

Day 1: Upper-Body Focus + Lower-Body Isometrics

Warm-up: Perform two rounds, moving through this as a circuit.

A1: Serratus Wall Slides x 5 reps

  • Standing in front of a wall, hold a foam roller in place with your forearms. (Alternatively, you can use sliders or towels under each forearm.)
  • Press your forearms into the sliders and the wall. You’ll feel your upper back flatten.
  • Maintaining this forward pressure and keeping your core engaged, slide your forearms up the wall. You’ll feel an upward rotation of the shoulder blades.
  • Slide your arms up only as far as you can control without letting up on the pressure into the wall or letting your core engagement break. In other words, don’t “borrow” mobility by flaring your ribs and arching your back.
  • Maintain the forward pressure and core engagement, reverse the movement, and slide your forearms down until your elbows reach shoulder height.

A2: Banded High Row x 10 reps

  • Loop a handled resistance band around a secure anchor at about face height (or set the pulley on an adjustable cable machine a few inches to a foot above your head and connect a two-handled rope attachment).
  • Facing the anchor point, grasp the handles with palms down and step back until you feel tension in the band.
  • Lean back slightly and assume a staggered athletic stance: one foot forward, the other slightly back, chin neutral, back straight, shoulder blades pulled down and together.
  • Maintaining this upright posture, draw your elbows wide and back as far as possible, keeping them slightly above shoulder height throughout the movement.
  • Reverse the motion to extend your arms with control, allowing the shoulder blades to abduct (wing slightly away from the middle of your back) when your arms are extended.

A3: Isometric Calf Raise x 20 seconds

  • Start standing with your feet shoulder width apart, knees straight, and weight evenly distributed in your feet.
  • Rise up onto the balls of your toes, actively pushing through the ball of your big toe to raise your heels as high as possible. Use a wall or chair for balance.
  • Hold the position for time, then gently lower your heels to starting position.

Circuit 1: Perform eight rounds total.

B1: Full-Range Pushup x 4 reps

  • Assume a high plank position, with hands slightly wider than shoulder width, arms extended (but not locked), and body straight from heels to the top of your head. Push through your hands to round your upper back into a slight hollow position. Distribute weight evenly across your entire hands and stay neutral: Don’t crane your neck up or drop your head toward the floor.
  • Bend your arms and retract your shoulder blades to lower yourself until your chest touches the floor. Aim elbows out about 45 degrees from your body, as if you’re pointing them to the back corners of the room.
  • Reverse the movement, pushing yourself back to the starting position.
  • Make this easier by dropping to your knees, making sure to hollow out at the top and touch your chest to the floor at the bottom.

B2: Inverted Row With Pause x 4 reps

  • Grasp the handles of a suspension trainer, facing the anchor point.
  • Keeping your body straight and engaged from head to heels, fully extend your arms; you’ll feel a slight stretch in your shoulders.
  • Pull your body toward the handle until your hands are near your rib cage and your triceps are parallel with your back.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades and pause for a two-second count to activate your upper back.
  • Lower your body with control until your arms are fully extended and you feel a slight stretch in your shoulders.

B3: Isometric Squat Calf Raise x 20 seconds

  • Holding onto a wall, chair, or pole for balance, start standing with your feet shoulder width apart, knees straight, and weight evenly distributed in your feet.
  • Lower yourself into a controlled squat. From this bottom position, press through the balls of your feet to rise up onto your toes. Keep your chest upright, core braced, and actively push through the ball of your big toe.
  • Hold the position for time, then gently lower your heels and straighten your legs to starting position.

Circuit 2: Perform three rounds total.

C1: Turkish Sit-Up x 5 reps/side

  • Lie on your back with right leg extended and slightly angled away from your body, right arm out to your side, and left knee bent with left heel on the floor. Grasping a kettlebell in your left hand, press your left arm toward the ceiling. Keep your wrist straight and shoulder blade down, or “packed.”
  • Drive your left foot into the ground as you lengthen through your right leg. Then press your right elbow into the ground as you begin to sit up, leading with your chest. Allow your upper body to shift to the right as you keep reaching your left arm toward the ceiling.
  • Shift your weight from your right elbow to your right hand, keeping your chest up and proud.
  • Reverse the movement, lowering yourself through the eccentric phase with focus and control, and return to the start position on your back.

C2: Foam-Roller Glute Bridge x 12 reps

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet planted firmly on a foam roller on the floor. From this position, engage your core, press your back into the floor, and begin squeezing your glutes.
  • Keep the glutes engaged and weight even across both feet as you press your hips up. Extend your hips fully so your body forms a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Do not let the foam roller roll away from you, and make sure your shoulder blades stay in contact with the floor to keep weight off your neck.
  • Hold this position for one breath, continuing to squeeze your glutes. Take care not to overextend and arch your back by keeping your ribs in proper alignment.
  • Slowly reverse the movement — don’t collapse to the floor or let the foam roller move — to return to the starting position.
  • Add weight to this movement by squeezing a medicine ball between your knees.

C3: Isometric Split-Squat Hold x 20 seconds

  • Assume the bottom of a split squat, or lunge, position. Both knees will be bent to approximately 90 degrees and your shoulders will be stacked over your hips.
  • Shift the weight in your front foot into your toes and allow your heel to come off the floor without losing your alignment.
  • Hold this position and repeat on the opposite side.
WEB EXTRA!

Day 2: Lower-Body Focus, Upper-Body Isometrics

Warm-up: Perform two sets.

A1: Straight-Leg Reverse Slider Lunge — Eccentric Lower x 5 to 7 reps/side

  • Start standing with one foot on the floor and the toes of the opposite foot on a slider.
  • Maintaining your balance on the standing leg, extend the slider-side leg behind you until it is straight.
  • Then, bend your front knee to assume a lunge position. The back leg will remain extended, moving back on the slider, and the front leg will form a 90-degree angle, with a vertical shin. Lower yourself slowly and with control.
  • Reverse direction by pushing into the front foot; it will almost feel like you are trying to drag the front foot back to meet the back foot. Keep the back leg fully extended, allowing it to slide up as you come to standing.
  • Repeat on both sides.

A2: Foam-Roller Glute Bridge — Single-Leg x 5 reps/side

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet planted firmly on a foam roller on the floor. From this position, engage your core, press your back into the floor, and begin squeezing your glutes.
  • Keep the glutes engaged and weight even across both feet as you press your hips up. Extend your hips fully so your body forms a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Do not let the foam roller roll away from you, and make sure your shoulder blades stay in contact with the floor to keep weight off your neck.
  • Hold this position for one breath, continuing to squeeze your glutes. Take care not to overextend and arch your back by keeping your ribs in proper alignment.
  • Slowly reverse the movement — don’t collapse to the floor or let the foam roller move — to return to the starting position.
  • Add weight to this movement by squeezing a medicine ball between your knees.

A3: Hand-Release Pushup Iso Hold x 20 seconds

  • Lie face-down on the floor, with your hands planted beneath your shoulders.
  • Engage your lower body and core, with as much tension as if you were about to do a pushup off the ground.
  • Maintaining this engagement and keeping your shoulders away from your ears, engage your midback to lift your hands off the floor.
  • Hold this position.

Work Set 1: Perform three sets.

B1: Squat (Front/Goblet/Back) x (3/3/3) reps with five-count eccentric

  • For this move, choose between three squat variations: front, goblet, or back squat. In the front squat position, unrack a barbell resting on the fronts of your shoulders and lightly supported by your hands in front of you. In the back-squat position, unrack a barbell resting on your upper back, hands gripping the bar outside your shoulders. In the goblet squat position, hold a kettlebell with both hands at chest height, keeping elbows close to the body.
  • In any variation, stand with feet about hip width apart and planted firmly on the ground.
  • Brace your core, and, with control, bend your knees and hips to squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the ground, or as far as you can with control.
  • Press through your feet to stand up. Squeeze your glutes at the top to achieve a full lockout.

B2: Single-Leg Stance x 30 seconds/side

  • Begin standing, with feet shoulder width apart and weight evenly distributed across both feet.
  • Shift your weight to one side and, with control, come to stand on just one leg. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed across that foot, between the ball of your big toe, ball of your pinky toe, and heel.
  • Hold for time, then return to standing on both feet. Repeat on the opposite side.

B3: Isometric Bent-Arm Lateral Raise x 20 seconds

  • Stand with feet hip width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
  • Bend your elbows to 90 degrees like you’re performing a half-hammer curl, palms in and thumbs up.
  • Raise your arms to the sides until your elbows and wrists are shoulder height. Keep your elbows bent; your palms will now be facing the floor.
  • Hold for time, then lower your arms to your sides.

Work Set 2: Perform three sets.

C1: Lateral Step-Up With Eccentric Lower x (3/3) reps per side

  • Stand with feet hip width apart next to a step or box beside you.
  • Plant one foot firmly on the step. With your other leg, straighten at the knee and pull up your toes so only your heel is on the ground.
  • Keeping your hips level and upper body upright, press through the foot on the step to step up, fully extending that knee and hip.
  • With control and keeping your hips level, lower down to the start position, allowing only the heel to tap the floor. Avoid bouncing off the floor with your trailing foot; lower the height of the step to maintain control.
  • To add weight, hold a kettlebell at shoulder height on the working-leg side. Make it harder by holding the kettlebell in an offset position, on the shoulder of the trailing leg.

C2: Saddle Squeeze x 5 reps with three-count hold

  • Sit on a stability ball, straddling it so your legs hang down on opposite sides of the ball.
  • Position yourself so your shoulders are over your hips and your knees are pointing to the floor. Find your balance, using a chair or other sturdy item for support as needed, and turn your feet so your toes are facing behind you and the tops of your feet are resting on the floor.
  • Squeeze the ball between your legs, taking care to keep your balance and your shoulders over your hips. Hold the squeeze for a count of three, then release. Repeat.

C3: Isometric Hollow Birddog Hold x 20 seconds/side

  • Begin on all fours with hands directly under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips.
  • Pull your abs in toward your spine.
  • Keeping your back and pelvis stable, reach your right arm forward and left leg back. Reach through the left heel to engage the muscles in the back of the leg and butt. Don’t allow the pelvis to rock side to side or the rib cage to sag toward the floor.
  • Hold for time, then return to the all-fours start position. Repeat on the opposite side.
WEB EXTRA!

Day 3: Upper-Body Vertical Focus, Lower-Body Hip Isometrics

Warm-up: Perform two sets.

A1: Crush-Grip Straight-Arm Raise x 5 to 7 reps

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart and hold a dumbbell between your hands so your palms — but not your fingers — are supporting the ends of the weight.
  • Allow your arms to hang straight down and press your palms into the dumbbell. You will feel your pectoral muscles contract.
  • Keep pressing into the dumbbell as you raise your arms straight in front of you. Do not use your fingers to grasp the weight.
  • Raise the dumbbell to shoulder height, then reverse the move to lower the weight with control, continuing to crush it on the way down.

A2: Face Pull x 10 to 12 reps

  • Loop a handled resistance band around a secure anchor at about face height (or set the pulley on an adjustable cable machine a few inches to a foot above your head, and connect a two-handled rope attachment)
  • Facing the anchor point, grasp the handles with palms down and step back until you feel tension in the band.
  • Lean back slightly and assume a staggered athletic stance: one foot forward, the other slightly back, chin neutral, back straight, shoulder blades pulled down and together.
  • Maintaining this upright posture, draw your elbows back and wide as far as possible, keeping them slightly above shoulder height throughout the movement.
  • Reverse the motion to extend your arms with control, allowing the shoulder blades to abduct (wing slightly away from the middle of your back) when your arms are extended.

A3: Isometric Calf Raise x 20 seconds

  • Start standing with your feet shoulder width apart, knees straight, and weight evenly distributed in your feet.
  • Rise up onto the balls of your toes, actively pushing through the ball of your big toe to raise your heels as high as possible. Use a wall or chair for balance.
  • Hold the position for time, then gently lower your heels to starting position.

Work Set 1: Perform eight sets.

B1: Gorilla Row x 5 reps

  • Stand with a wide stance and with two kettlebells between your feet.
  • Hinge your hips back and bend your knees until you can reach the handles of both kettlebells.
  • Grasp the kettlebells, then alternate sides to row them one at a time. As you row up with one side, push down into the opposite kettlebell on the floor. Don’t allow your hips or upper body to rise up.
  • Alternate sides for the total number of repetitions.

B2: Windmill x 4 reps/side

  • Stand with feet inside shoulder width.
  • Press a kettlebell overhead with one arm, then angle your feet 45 degrees away from the arm holding the kettlebell overhead.
  • Look up at the kettlebell and keep your gaze there.
  • Shift the hip that is underneath the kettlebell back at a 45-degree angle, keeping that leg long while the front leg is soft with a bent knee.
  • At the same time, allow your thoracic spine to rotate so your arm holding the kettlebell is vertical and reaching for the ceiling.
  • Reach down with the free arm, tracing the inside of the front leg.
  • Only lower as far as you can by moving your hips back and up. Keep both feet flat on the floor and do not let your spine bend to accommodate a lower position.
  • Reverse the movement with control to return to standing.

B3: Isometric Donkey Kick x 20 seconds

  • Begin on all fours with hands directly under your shoulders, knees directly under your hips, and toes tucked so your feet are flexed.
  • Pull your abs in toward your spine. Keeping your back and pelvis stable and maintaining the 90-degree angle of the knee, lift one heel toward the ceiling. The front of the hip will stretch while the glute contracts. Avoid arching the back or rotating the pelvis.
  • Hold for time, then lower to the starting position and repeat on the opposite side.

Work Set 2: Perform three sets.

C1: Turkish Bridge Press x 4/side reps

  • Sit on the floor, with one hand on the floor near your hip and the same-side leg extended and slightly angled away from your body.
  • Bend the opposite knee, plant your foot on the floor, and hold a kettlebell in the racked position at shoulder height.
  • This will feel similar to the top of the Turkish Sit-Up, except with the arm tucked at your side instead of extended overhead.
  • From this position, press through the planted foot and begin to lift your hips off the ground. At the same time, begin pressing the weight up to the ceiling. Focus on pushing through the foot and the anchored hand and reaching for the ceiling with the weight.
  • Fully extend your hips at the top and hold for one count.
  • Reverse the movement with control, lowering your hips and the kettlebell simultaneously.

C2: Isometric Cossack Squat Hold x 20 seconds

  • Assume the bottom of a Cossack Squat: With legs spread wide, begin to lunge to one side while keeping the opposite leg straight to the side.
  • Allow the foot of the straight leg to turn out and the toes to lift as needed. Extend your arms in front of you as a counterbalance, if needed.
  • Lower yourself as far as your mobility will allow, keeping both heels on the floor.
  • Once you have reached the end of your controllable range, hold this position.

Work Set 3: Perform four sets.

D1: Chin-up/Neutral-Grip Pull-up x (3/3) reps

  • For this move, choose between two variations: a chin-up (with palms supinated, or facing toward you) or neutral-grip pull-up, with palms facing each other. You can use a machine for assistance.
  • In the bottom position of either variation, extend your arms fully until your elbows are almost straight.
  • Keeping your chest proud and shoulders drawn back, pull yourself up until your chin is just above your hands.
  • Lower back down with control.

D2: Isometric Dip Hold x 20 seconds

  • Use the assisted dip machine, a dip attachment for a squat rack, parallettes, or two equally sized boxes placed about shoulder width apart for this exercise.
  • Assume the top of the dip position, with legs either actively extended or knees tucked up in a hollow (fetal) position.
  • Actively push your hands into and away from the handles and draw your armpits close together. Focus on the activation in your armpits and pecs while keeping your shoulders away from your ears.
  • Hold this position.

D3: Single-Leg Stance x 30 seconds/side

  • Begin standing, with feet shoulder width apart and weight evenly distributed across both feet.
  • Shift your weight to one side and, with control, come to stand on just one leg. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed across that foot, between the ball of your big toe, ball of your pinky toe, and heel.
  • Hold for time, then return to standing on both feet. Repeat on the opposite side.

This originally appeared as “Back It Up” in the December 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

is an Experience Life senior editor and Alpha Strong coach at Life Time.

Photography by: Kelly Loverud; Styling: Pam Brand; Fitness Model: Kyler Eid

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