3 WORKOUTS TO BULLETPROOF YOUR LOWER BACK AND PREVENT ACHES & PAIN
Men's Fitness consulted Dr. Joel Seedman for this article, which originally appeared at mensfitness.com.
About 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes, according to the National Institue of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The double-edged sword is its usually caused by a sedentary lifestyle or heavy use. Since you're on this website, you probably fall into the latter of the two groups. The good news is that exercising can actually alleviate most of your aches and pains—if you know which ones are best, and how to do them correctly that is.
Joel Seedman, Ph.D., strength and performance specialist and owner of Advanced Human Performance in Atlanta, Georgia has created three workouts to develop a strong, healthy back. View the workouts below, and flip through the slides to view the instructions and how each particular exercise will benefit your back.
* Note: Exercise descriptions are listed below the workout routine.
WORKOUT 1: DAILY ACTIVATION ROUTINE
*Perform 1-3x daily at home or in your office (you know; just close the door).
- Bird-Dog Quadruped on bed or floor 2 x 8 reps (per side, alternating)
- Glute Bridge 2 x 10 reps (pause and squeeze glutes for 2 seconds at top position)
- Single Leg Stand with arms overhead 2 x 30 seconds (per side)
- Bodyweight Squats 2 x 8 reps (pause at bottom for 3 seconds)
- Plank 2 x 30 sec
- Standing Windmill Stretch 2 x 6 reps on each side (pause 5 seconds at stretched position)
- Lying Dead Bug 2 x 8 reps (per side, alternating)
- Bodyweight Lunge or Bulgarian Squat 2 x 5 reps each side (pause at bottom for 3 seconds)
*Each superset circuit should be performed in an alternating fashion with 45-60 seconds of rest between movements and 75-90 seconds before moving to the next superset station. Use light to moderate weight regardless of the listed rep range.
*Perform Workouts 2 and 3 each once per week. They can be performed in a standalone fashion or in conjunction with additional workout routines of your choice.
- Single Leg Glute Bridge 3 x 8 reps per leg (pause for 3 seconds at top)
- Cable Pull-through 3 x 6-8 reps (pause at bottom and top)
- Palloff Press with Lunge Hold 2 x 5 reps per side (pause for 5 seconds at extended position)
- Single arm Front Racked Squat 2 x 5 reps per arm (10 total squats per set)
- Eccentric Isometric Pullups 3 x 4-5 reps
- Single Arm Dumbbell Floor Press 3 x 8 reps each side
- Single Arm Plank 2 x 20 sec each side
- Farmers Walk Loaded Carry (dumbbells in each hand at sides) 2 x 50 yards
- Windmill Side Plank 2 x 30 sec each side
- Single Leg RDL and Row 2 x 8 reps per side (perform 1 row per each RDL)
- Eccentric Isometric Bulgarian Squats 2 x 6-8 reps each side
- Suitcase Single Arm Loaded Carry (dumbbell at side of body) 2 x 40 yards each side
- Single Arm Overhead Dumbbell Press while kneeling on bench 3 x 6-8 reps each side
- Supine Cable Pullover 3 x 8-10 reps
- Light Barbell Squats, Deadlifts, or RDL’s (focus on technique - 30-50% 1RM) 3 x 5-6 reps
- Single Leg Plank 3 x 20 sec each side
1. Bird-Dog Quadruped (on floor, bench, or bed)
How it helps: "Performing a few daily exercises that promote spinal stabilization and core activation can go a long way in terms of improving low-back health and reducing pain," Seedman says. "The quadruped or bird-dog can essentially be performed anywhere at anytime."
Directions: Position yourself on your hands and knees, keeping a narrow base so your knees are touching each other. Keep your spine in a neutral position and extend one arm straight in front of your body while extending the opposite leg. Hold for 5 seconds, then switch. The goal should be to produce a straight line from head to toe when your appendages are extended.
Expert tip: "Although these are typically preformed on the floor, if you’re in the comfort of your own home, performing these on a couch, bench, or bed will make the exercise even more intense," Seedman adds. Position the middle of your shins at the edge of the bed (or bench), and perform the same movement as described above. "By eliminating an anchor point, namely your feet in this instance, the instability becomes far greater, forcing you to activate your spinal stabilizers more aggressively." Perform this movement several times per day, working up to several sets of 5 repes on each side of your body.
2. Glute Bridge (and Variations)
How it helps: "Inactive or dormant glutes are a surefire way to acquire a low back injury as these muscles are key for ensuring optimal hip function," Seedman explains. "And when the hips are in a state of dysfunction, your low back becomes greatly compromised."
Directions: Lie flat on your back with your legs bent and feet 12-16 inches in front of your body. Lift your hips up by driving your pelvis towards the ceiling and squeezing your glutes.
Expert tip: "Once you’ve established a proper muscle-mind connection, and can feel the muscles around your hips fire, try progressing to the single leg variation as this will help even out any imbalances between the left and right hip," Seedman suggests. Performing several sets of 10 reps on each side of your body at least once per day is ideal. What's more, performing a few sets before a lower-body workout will ensure the muscles around your hips are doing their job throughout the training session, minimizing stress to your low back.
3. Single Leg Stand with Arms Overhead
How it helps: "Balance is another overlooked yet highly critical factor when examining low back health," Seedman says. "Lack of balance typically indicates muscles around the hips, spine, and other surrounding regions aren’t firing as they should placing the individual in a highly vulnerable scenario," he adds.
Directions: While maintaining perfect posture, stand on one leg. Position your non-support leg directly in front of the working leg. Keep your feet, hips, shoulders, neck, and head straight and perfectly aligned with one other. Optional: Hold your arms directly overhead.
Expert tip: "By holding your arms directly overhead, you emphasize postural control and spinal elongation," Seedman explains. But if it’s still too easy, try the same drill with your eyes closed and stand on a soft mat or pillow. "If you can successfully do this, I can just about guarantee your low back won’t be suffering an injury anytime soon," he adds. Perform this for several sets of 30-60 seconds on each side of your body at least once per day.
4. Bodyweight Squat
How it helps: "Performed with proper technique, squats [and deadlifts] can have a tremendous impact on back health and even eliminate significant pain in the lower back," Seedman says. "However, with faulty form, squats, deadlifts, and variations thereof contribute to more strength training-related injuries than any other exercises—particularly when it comes to the low back."
Directions: Although there are various technique cues that are necessary to master the form, some are more vital than others. First and foremost, lock your spine in and keep it slightly arched while bracing your abs during the entire movement, he says. Second, make sure your hips hinge back as you lower into the squat, while bending your knees. And lastly, focus on pushing your knees apart as you descend. This will optimize hip activation and mobility, ultimately taking stress off your low back.
Expert tip: Don't use an excessive range of motion. "Many individuals try to squat with exaggerated depth and end up suffering the consequences," Seedman says. "For most lifters, parallel depth is ideal." And remember: Failing to hinge at the hips is a great way to blow your low back and knees out at the same time when you do front or back squats, so get the technique right with bodyweight squats first.
5. Plank (and Variations)
How it helps: "If I had to recommend only one exercise that strengthens the muscles around the spine while also acting as a therapeutic modality for improving low back pain, it would be planks and variations thereof," Seedman says. They teach you how to brace your core and resist forces that want to extend your spine.
Directions: Using a neutral spine, position yourself on your forearms so your elbows are bent at 90-degree angles. Keep your body tall and maintain a straight line from your hips to your head. Really focus on bracing the spine by pulling your stomach in and keeping perfect posture. Try performing several sets of 30-60 seconds.
Expert tip: "Once you can comfortably manage this, try progressing the intensity by trying some of these challenging variations: weighted planks, single leg planks, single arm planks, stretched planks, and planks on a stability ball.
6. Standing Windmill Stretch
How it helps: "Stretching the hips and back can be a tricky feat, particularly if you experience low back pain," Seedman says. "Overstretch, even slightly, and you could set yourself back for weeks," he explains. It all comes down to knowing which stretches to employ. The Standing Windmill Stretch stretches nearly all the muscles around the spine and the musculature around the hip.
Directions: Take a fairly wide stance with your feet at least 3-feet apart. Place one elbow in the crevice of your inner thigh and bend over laterally at your spine as you drive the opposite arm towards the ceiling. Keep your chest open. Continue to push the elbow into your knee in order to open up your hips. Reach as high as you can with the elevated arm while trying to look straight up toward the ceiling. You should feel a deep stretch throughout a significant portion of your body, particularly your back. Hold for 5-10 seconds and switch sides. Perform 2 sets of 5-6 reps on each side of your body, gradually trying to improve your mobility with each repetition.
7. Lying Dead Bug
How it helps: "Activating the entire musculature of your core while maintaining perfect postural alignment is a highly effective combination for both preventing and curing low back pain," Seedman says. "This movement looks simple at first, but after a few properly performed repetitions, you should feel your core bracing fiercely to stabilize your spine."
Directions: Lie down on your back with your arms held straight above your chest. Lift your legs up off the floor and bend your knees at 90 degrees. While keeping all your appendages straight and maintaining a tight abdominal region, drive one leg straight out while extending the opposite arm behind you. Pause for a few seconds, then repeat on the other side. Perform 16 reps total or 8 reps per side for several sets.
Expert tip: "The tendency most people have on this exercise is to let their low backs excessively arch as they extend their limbs," Seedman says. "However, when performing this movement, the goal should be to keep tall posture while ensuring the low back stays in contact with the floor throughout."
8. Eccentric Isometric Bulgarian Squats
How it helps: "A very common, yet often overlooked issue that contributes to low back pain, is tight hip flexors," Seedman says. "Although there are various drills to stretch these muscles, it’s very easy to over-arch the low back when trying to elongate your hip flexors," he adds. The Bulgarian Squat is great because it strengthens the muscles around your hips, actively elongates your hips flexors, and promotes optimal hip mobility. Plus, when you perform them in an eccentric isometric fashion, you hone in on areas of tightness and correct their mechanics.
Directions: Similar to a lunge, you’ll be using a stride position with your back foot placed on a bench. Have the top of your foot (where your shoe laces are located) in contact with the bench. The crease of your ankle should be at the edge of the bench. Step forward with the front leg so it's several feet in front of the bench. Squat down slowly on your front leg while keeping your chest out, hips pushed back, and most of the pressure on the heel of the front leg. Once you’ve reached the deepest natural position your body can achieve, pause for 3-7 seconds. As a daily exercise it can be performed with bodyweight for several sets of 4-6 reps.
Expert tip: Once you’ve become comfortable with this movement, you can add loads like dumbbells or barbells.
9. Cable Pull-Through
How it helps: "The ability to hinge at the hips is an absolute must if you want to maintain a healthy back," Seedman says. "Unfortunately, most individuals bend over by flexing at their spine rather than their hips, which promotes hip dysfunction and facilitates degradation to their spinal structure." The Cable Pull-Through is a great exercise for establishing proper hip hinge mechanics.
Directions: Fix a rope to a cable column set near the bottom position. Straddle the rope between your legs and face away from the column. Take several steps forward using a wide stance with a foot position roughly 2- to 3-feet apart. While keeping your arms straight, bend over at the hips and allow the pulley system to drive the rope and your hips back towards the column. Keep your spine locked in while making sure all movement occurs at your hip joint. Pause at the bottom, then aggressively drive yourself back to the top position by contracting your glutes as forcefully as possible. Repeat for 3 sets of 8 reps.
10. Pallof Press with Lunge Hold
How it helps: "The Pallof Press with a Lunge is an excellent anti-rotation exercise that promotes incredible levels of spinal stability, core tension, and hip activation," Seedman says. "Whether you’re a professional baseball player, recreational golfer, or typical fitness enthusiast, knowing how to stabilize your spine when forces are trying to rotate your body is a vital component when it comes to low back health."
Directions: Anchor a band or cable pulley at approximately sternum height. Stand so the anchor point is either on the left or right side of your body, then walk out several feet to create tension in the band or pulley. Whatever side of your body the anchor point is on, place the opposite leg in front and assume the top of a lunge position. While holding this semi-lunge, press the handle out in front of your chest while maintaining balance and proper spinal alignment. Hold this position for several seconds, then return the handle to your chest. As you drive the weight out, resist letting it move your body or rotate your torso. Perform 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps on each side.
11. Single Arm Front Racked Squat
How it helps: "If you want to improve your low back health, learn to squat with proper form by practicing the basic movement pattern frequently," Seedman says. "One variation that’s particularly effective for teaching proper squat form while producing very minimal stress on the low back is the single arm front-racked squat," he adds.
Directions: Take a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand and hold it near your chest or shoulder. As you squat down, avoid letting the weight tilt your body to one side by forcefully contracting your core. Keep your hips back and chest tall while maintaining a neutral spine from your head to your hips. Perform 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps on each side of your body.
12. Eccentric Isometric Pullups
How it helps: "Pullups are typically considered to be an upper body movement, but, when performed properly, they're a great exercise for promoting decompression of your spinal column," Seedman says. "In addition, pullups or chinups promote tall posture and strong upper lats—all of which are critical for low back health." Together, Eccentric Isometric Pullups emphasize spinal lengthening, vertebral decompression, and postural awareness as the muscles around the back and shoulders are held in a stretched position.
Directions: Start by hanging on a pullup bar. Pull yourself to the top, keeping a tall chest and tight core. Pause at the top, then squeeze your lats. Slowly lower yourself to a full hang while resisting the urge to collapse at your shoulders. Pause in this stretched position for 3-7 seconds, then repeat for 3 sets of 3-5 reps.
13. Single Arm Dumbbell Floor Press
How it helps: "Few people think of chest pressing movements as exercises that could promote low back health, but the Single Arm Floor Press does just that," Seedman says. Unlike a typical bench press where your feet are below your body, your feet are in line with your hips and back, which reduces extension forces on the back and promotes a neutral spine.
Directions: Take a dumbbell in one hand and lie flat on your back. Have your feet straight out on the floor spread roughly a foot apart. Brace your abs, keep your chest open, flex your lats, and keep your entire body as tight as possible. Lower the dumbbell slowly, pause once your tricep reaches the floor, then powerfully yet smoothly drive the weight back to the starting position. Perform several sets of 8 reps on each arm.
Expert tip: "Perform the movement on a hard floor," Seedman suggests. "This forces you to maintain proper spinal alignment since anything but perfect posture feels very uncomfortable." Also, use a neutral grip rather than an overhand position, he says. This will ensure your lats are firing more intensely, which is critical for stabilizing the spine and maintaining proper posture.
14. Farmers Walk Loaded Carry
How it helps: It may seem counter-productive, but Farmers Walk Loaded Carry and Suitcase Single Arm Loaded Carry exercises build a strong and stable back. Plus you'll develop powerful legs and hips, and strength through your core and arms. Just make sure you keep your spine locked, head up, and strengthen your core throughout the exercise to stabilize your low back.
Directions: Pick up the heaviest set of dumbbells you can manage, and hold them at your sides. Stand tall and walk with them for the prescribed time.
15. Windmill Side Plank
How it helps: "The Windmill Plank is one of the most effective core stabilization exercises since it requires intense activation of the muscles around your hips and spine that are often difficult to activate with traditional movements," Seedman says.
Directions: Lie on your side, stack your feet on top of each other, place the hand that’s closest to the ground flat on the floor, and lift your entire body up so that the only two points of contact are your feet and hand. Keep your hips tall and slightly pushed forward as your opposite arm reaches up and slightly behind you. This will open up your chest and reinforce proper posture.
Expert tip: "If you’re looking to increase the intensity, try abducting or lifting your top leg straight up in the air while keeping both feet parallel to each other. Hold for 30 seconds then switch sides; 2-3 sets will more than suffice for this deceptively challenging movement.
16. Heavy Hip-Hinge Movements (RDL, kettlebell swings, etc.)
How it helps: "One of the most effective steps you can take to directly strengthen your low back is to become very strong and technically efficient at axial-loaded hip hinge movements where you're directly loading the spine," Seedman says. Moves include RDL’s, good mornings, kettlebell swings, and variations thereof.
Directions: For Romanian Deadlift, stand in front of the bar so your shins touch it and your feet are roughly shoulder-width apart. Squat down and grab the bar overhand, hands slightly wider than shoulder width, and elbows straight. Your lower back should be in its natural arch. Draw your shoulders back, push your chest out, and tense your lats. Take a deep breath and begin standing up. Focus on pushing your heels into the floor and pulling your chest up while squeezing the bar hard. Keep the bar as close to your legs as possible, even if it scrapes your shins a bit as you come up. As soon as the bar passes your knees, push your hips forward with power (this is called the lockout). You should end up standing tall and straight with the bar in front of your groin. Slowly reverse the motion, making sure to keep your abs braced, then lower the bar to the floor.
Expert tip: "These exercises directly stress the musculature around the low back particularly at the bottom of the movement where the back is near parallel to the floor," Seedman says. "As your technique and strength improves, you'll have an injury-proof low back as the muscles around your spine will be incredibly strong and developed. Just make sure to progress slowly and keep a neutral spine throughout as this is paramount to optimizing results and avoiding injury."
17. Single Arm Overhead Dumbbell Press (on Bench)
How it helps: Heavy overhead presses are typically shunned when you’re suffering from low back pain. "But they provide numerous benefits to the spine like spinal stabilization, upright posture, t-spine mobility, and intense core activation," Seedman explains. "In order to avoid the potential drawbacks associated with overhead presses while still reaping the benefits they so effectively provide, I recommend performing Single Arm Overhead Presses while kneeling on a bench." This diminishes spinal compression forces and really activates your core.
Directions: Kneel on a bench so your mid shins are at the edge. Because your feet and ankles will be hanging off the bench, you’re essentially limiting your base of support which further engages your core. While holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand using a neutral or semi-neutral grip, drive the weight up overhead in line with your ear, then pause for several seconds. Lower the weight slowly to your chest, pause, then drive the weight back to the top. Repeat for 6-8 reps for several sets on each arm.
Expert tip: "This position also has a tendency to promote proper mechanics since it’s almost impossible to perform the movement with anything but correct technique," Seedman says.
18. Supine Cable Pullover
How it helps: People with low back pain usually suffer from an overly flat back or lack of a natural arch due to prolonged sitting in a slouched position during the day, Seedman says. But some individuals fall on the opposite end of the spectrum and have an excessive low back arch and unusually weak core muscles. "The Supine or Lying Cable Pullover is a great exercise for correcting this, Seedman says. "Even if you don’t fall into this category, the movement is a great core and upper body drill for thoroughly taxing the surrounding musculature."
Directions: Lie on your back with your body facing away from the pulley so the weight stack is behind you. Set the attachment height roughly a foot above the floor. Scoot away from the cable column to provide adequate room to perform the movement. While on your back with your arms straight, gripping the attachment, pivot at your shoulder joint and drive your hands towards your thighs. Pause at this point of full contraction, then slowly drive the weight in back of you to the starting position behind your head. Keep your core fully engaged throughout, trying to minimize the amount of arch produced in your low back. If you don’t have access to a cable system, this movement can also be performed with exercise bands. Perform 3 sets of 8 reps, pausing at the top and bottom.