Back pain is a very common issue for adults—about 80% of Americans will have it at some point in their lifetime. The good news is it doesn’t have to be a long-term injury, let alone lifelong.
To work out or to not work out when experiencing pain in your lower back—that is the question.
Short term, you should listen to your body and rest for a few days after you begin to experience pain or soreness. Longer term, motion is going to benefit you. Too many people are told by their doctor or physical therapist to stop exercising when they get back pain, but the majority of the time this will actually prevent you from getting better. Learn how you can stay mindfully active when experiencing lower back pain.
Listen to your body
Let’s start by distinguishing between pain and soreness. Soreness is a natural result of performing exercises. It will present as an aching, dull feeling that goes away on its own after two to three days. You’re likely familiar with how this feels because you’ve felt it in many of the muscles in your body.
On the other hand, pain may occur if you are performing an exercise wrong. Pain feels more serious than soreness—it’s moderate to severe and will get in the way of your normal day to day activities.
How to work out with lower back pain
There are three main “do’s” we want you to follow when experiencing lower back pain.
Keep active. You can still train in the presence of pain. Start slow, practice lifting with less intensity. It’s common to think that if you can’t do everything you used to be able to do before you had pain, the exercise is not worth it. This is not true—less intense workouts will keep up your fitness and aid in the recovery of your lower back.
Stretch before and after you workout. Make sure you spend ten minutes gently stretching your full body to soften tight muscles before and after your workout.
Work around it, not through it. Try out different exercises to discover which of them aren’t painful, and do more of them. You shouldn’t stop weight training when you have lower back pain, but avoid movements that contribute to the pain. If you do experience pain during a movement, stop right away and make a note of it so you can temporarily avoid it moving forward.
Practice single arm or single leg movements. This is great for lower back pain as you won’t need to lift as much weight to get to fatigue. We also recommend practicing your reps with less range of motion than normal. For example, perform partial range squats or ab exercises, or lift from an elevated surface instead of from the floor. You can increase the range of motion once you’re feeling better.
Examples of alternate exercises for lower back pain
Let’s get to the specifics. Below are exercises that tend to be okay for people with back pain. Try them out and see which of them work best for you, while listening to your body if you are running into pain.
Press up back extensions
Knee to chest
Low impact aerobic exercise
Ab exercises using an exercise ball
Exercises that may cause your pain to increase
When experiencing lower back pain, it can be frustrating to not know what exercises to avoid. An important thing to realize is there are no "bad" exercises for your back. Once you fully recover, there's nothing you'll need to avoid for the long term. In the short term, it can often be helpful to follow the following tips:
Keep the weight low for any lifting exercises at first to see how you respond.
Avoid movements that are painful, don't push into pain.
Don’t compromise good form for pain, avoid any movements you aren’t able to do the same as before your pain.
Avoid any movements that you aren’t confident in—if you have to change the movement pattern, it can cause more problems than it’s worth.
Now that you have knowledge on back pain versus soreness, as well as some do’s and don'ts of exercising with back pain, we hope that you’ll feel empowered to heal through movement. If your pain is persistent and doesn’t subside after a few days, we’re here to talk.