Lower Back Pain Exercises to Avoid and Alternatives

Dr. Eric DePopas, MD

Dr. Eric DePopas, MD

PainTheory Chief Medical Officer
Vascular & Interventional Radiologist

Table of Contents

Are you experiencing lower back pain? You’re not alone. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, an estimated 75%-85% of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Exercising is a great way to help relieve lower back pain, but some exercises can do more harm than good. To ensure that your exercise routine isn’t triggering your pain, we have provided a list of exercises to avoid and their best alternatives below. 

Exercises to avoid when suffering from back pain

Running

Running is a high-impact activity that puts repetitive stress on your back and joints. Often, running isn’t the direct cause of lower back pain, however, it can aggravate existing pain. A better cardio alternative is swimming. The water’s buoyancy helps relieve pressure on your spine, allowing you to get a cardio workout without further exasperating existing pain. When swimming, try using backstrokes and avoid strokes that force your lower back to arch, like butterfly or breaststroke. 

Superman

Superman is performed by lying face down and lifting your straightened arms and legs off the ground simultaneously. This exercise often places pressure on the lower back, increasing pain. A better exercise to try is bird-dog. 

To perform bird-dog, start on your hands and knees and engage your core. With control, extend one leg behind you at hip level. Next, extend your opposite arm in front of you at shoulder level. Hold this pose for 5 seconds, then return to the starting position. Finish by performing the same exercise on the opposite side of your body. 

Sit-ups

Sit-ups were once considered the gold standard for core exercises, but they may not be as good for you as once thought. According to the Harvard School of Medicine, sit-ups push your spine against the floor and recruit the use of your hip flexors through the movement. The hip flexors run from your thighs to your lower back. When they’re tight, they pull on the lower spine, causing lower back pain. A partial crunch is a better option that can work your core muscles without causing pain. 

When performing partial crunches, start lying down, knees bent, with your feet flat on the floor. Cross your arms over your chest or bring your hands behind your neck. As you exhale, lift your shoulders off the ground and hold the pose for 5 seconds before lowering to the ground. Repeat the movement 8-10 times.

Shoulder press

Overhead movements like the shoulder press can add pressure to your spinal discs irritating your lower back. A better move to try that also works your shoulder muscles is the lateral raise. To perform the lateral raise, start standing, holding dumbbells on either side of your body. Next, slowly lift your arms until your hands are parallel with the floor. Lower your arms back to your sides in a controlled fashion and repeat the movement 8-10 times.

Golf

A 2014 study in the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine reported that lower back pain from golf is the most common golf injury. The rotation required in the golf swing puts the athlete at risk of developing lower back pain or aggravating existing pain. When trying to alleviate back pain, a better alternative to golf is walking. 

Like golf, walking provides an opportunity for you to get outside, get social, and move in a way that improves your spine health. By inviting friends out for a walk instead of a round of golf, you’ll strengthen the muscles that support your spine and increase the flexibility in your lower back, helping to reduce your lower back pain. Plus, between you and I, walking is a lot less likely to irritate your wallet. 

Standing toe touches

Although the standing toe touch is one of the most popular stretches, it’s not a great move for your lower back. The forward stretching motion puts stress on the discs and ligaments in your spine, which can further increase pain. A lying hamstring stretch provides a safer alternative without putting your spine at risk.

To begin the lying hamstring stretch, start lying on the floor with one knee bent and one leg extended. Loop a towel around the foot of your extended leg. Slowly pull back on the towel, and you’ll feel a stretch down the back of your leg. Hold this stretch for 15-30 seconds and repeat on the opposite leg.

Barbell back squat

The barbell back squat is a technical movement that, if performed incorrectly, can cause lower back pain. Many people struggle with rounding their back during this movement, putting themselves at risk for lower back pain or potential injury. If you struggle to keep your back from rounding during the barbell back squat, give the goblet squat a try. 

To perform the goblet squat, start with your feet hip-distance apart. Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell at chest level, close to your body, and sit back, keeping your weight in your heels. Press back up through your heels to come back to the starting position. Repeat the movement 8-10 times.

Leg lifts

Leg lifts require you to lay on your back and move both legs off the ground while keeping your back flat against the ground. Leg lifts are a challenging movement, and if your core isn’t strong enough, your lower back may overcompensate for that weakness, leading to more back pain. Instead, try keeping one knee bent, and one leg extended. Keep your back flat on the floor and slowly lift the extended leg. Repeat this movement 8-10 times before switching to your opposite leg. 

Conclusion

Although there are a number of exercises to avoid if you experience back pain, lower back pain doesn’t have to keep you curled up on the couch. There are plenty of ways to move and strengthen your back as you work toward improving your pain. If your back pain continues to limit your daily activities, consider scheduling a consultation with an expert to help determine the next steps and get you back to living your active life to its fullest. 

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The information included in this document in no way substitutes for medical advice.

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