There are many different reasons why you might be experiencing lower back pain. If it's a persistent pain or one that you suspect could be due to an injury, your first visit should be to your doctor or physiotherapist.
Many of us, however, have that nagging pain because of poor posture, or simply a lack of flexibility and strength. If this is the case, then you are in luck because there are many things you can do to alleviate the discomfort.
While it may be tempting to simply sit down or spend a lot of quality time with your couch, getting up and moving is actually the best thing you can do for your spine. The key is to focus on strengthening not only your back muscles, but also your abdominal and leg muscles.
So let's get up off the couch and get started!
The first thing we need to talk about is posture, especially for those spending much of their time at a desk or even on their smartphones. Now, you might be thinking that practicing proper posture is not a real exercise, but hear me out for a second.
Go stand in front of a mirror. Your feet should be hip distance apart, knees and toes pointing forward, shoulders down and back, stomach tucked in, the top of your head reaching for the ceiling, and your ears in line with your shoulders. Now stand like this for 30 seconds. Many of us will feel our muscles working.
So this will be your homework: practice standing with proper posture every time you are looking in the mirror, waiting for the bus, brushing your teeth, riding the elevator, doing the dishes, or any other daily activity that requires standing.
Abdominal and back muscles
Rather than doing full sit ups, which usually engage a lot of your other muscles and can exacerbate your back pain, you're going to focus on doing small movements that target your deep abdominal muscles.
Starting on your back with your knees bent and feet hip distance apart, place your hands behind your head, keeping your elbows wide. Inhale and on your exhale, curl just the top half of your torso up off the floor. Try to keep your abdominal muscles flat and engaged the whole time, and watch that you aren't squeezing your glutes or letting your tailbone curl up off of the floor. Take a breath and return to the floor. Do 15 to 20 reps.
Modification: To increase the difficulty, add a set of eight to 10 small pulses at the top.
This time when you crunch, add a slight rotation as you curl your torso off the floor. Remember to keep your elbows wide and your hips steady. Your hip bones should be pointing up to the ceiling and your tailbone should be very gently pressing into the floor. Aim to do 15 rotations on each side.
Although this appears to be a very small exercise, it's actually quite difficult when done properly. Start on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Exhale while lifting one leg up to a 90 degree angle, inhale and then take the other leg up to meet it. Now, this may be enough of a workout for some, and if that's all you can do for now then that’s all you will do.
Now, once your legs are both up in that 90 degree angle, you are going to take a breath and keep the angle, create an arch as you slowly dip your right leg to the floor. Bring it back up and repeat with your left. Aim for 10 to 12 dips with each leg. Once this becomes too easy, you can work both your legs at the same time.
There are a few things to keep in mind here. Your goal is not to touch the floor with your foot, but rather to freely move your leg in its hip socket, while keeping your abdominal muscles engaged. If you find your back muscles lifting off the floor you are taking your leg too low.
These can be done on the floor or lying face down over an exercise ball. With your hand placed under your forehead, elbows wide, inhale to create a long line as you lift your torso a few inches off the floor (or ball). Take a breath at the top and exhale as you lower. Note that this is not a big movement, but you still need to focus on your muscles. Remember to keep your shoulders down and to keep your abdominal muscles engaged. Do not press them into the floor (or ball) as you lift your body. It's not about how high you can go, but rather about how much control you have over your muscles.
Glutes, hips and legs
When strengthening your back muscles, it's very important not to forget about your glutes and legs, because they act as stabilizers for your pelvis. When you step forward, essentially you are balancing on one leg, even if it's only for a split second. If your pelvis tips and shifts too much, then that puts undue pressure on your back and causes a lot of discomfort and, over time, pain. In effect, it's not just about strengthening the muscles that are causing you pain, but also paying attention to the ones that surround them.
This is basically a squat, but you'll have your back against the wall for support. Standing tall with your feet hip distance apart, toes pointing forward, keep your back pressed up against the wall as you bend your knees as though you're taking a seat. Try to get as close to a 90 degree position with your knees as you can, and note that you might have to take a step or two forward. Hold for 10 seconds and return to standing. Repeat 10 times.
Note: Watch that your knees are right over your toes and not falling toward or away from each other.
Bridge (Part 1):
Lying on your back with your knees bent, feet hip distance apart, gently squeeze your glutes as you lift your hips off of the floor so that your knees, hip bones and shoulders are in a diagonal. Take care to not over-arch your back. Hold this position for about five seconds and lower your body back to the floor.
Modification: To make this harder, place your feet on a ball or a foam roller.
Bridge with leg lift (Part 2):
Now that you have mastered the bridge, you will take it up a notch. The beginning of the exercise is the same as the last one, but now, trying not to let your hips drop, take your right leg and lift it up toward the ceiling. Once there, you will lower and lift it five times before placing it back on the floor. Repeat with the other leg.
Do another set with each side.
Note that if lifting your leg up to the ceiling is too much then just practice by lifting your foot a few inches off the floor. The key to this exercise is to keep your hips from dropping. Although they aren’t the primary muscles being used, you are using your abs as stabilizers.
Lying on your side in one long line and without letting your side drop onto the floor (this means you'll have to keep your stomach muscles engaged), lift your top leg up, so that it's in line with your hips. Your goal for all of these is to keep your body as steady as you can.
- Draw small circles with your leg (eight clockwise and eight counter clockwise).
- Lower and lift your leg 10 times. You can lift your leg as high as it will go without your hips shifting.
- Squeezing your inner thighs together, lift both legs a few inches off of the floor, and then lower them back down together (10 times).
- Lift your top leg so that it's in line with your hip, take it as far forward as you can and then take it back (10 times). Again, try not to let your hips move.