You started a new workout regimen to build strength but so far all you’ve managed to do is inflame your lower back (ugh).
“A little bit of soreness is normal if you work out, but if the next day you’re super sore and it’s hard for you to move and get around, that’s a sign something is up,” says Dr. Brian Liem, a sports medicine expert at Husky Stadium and a clinical associate professor in the UW School of Medicine Department of Rehabilitation Medicine.
Not sure if your soreness is normal or concerning? Liem says if you have sharp back pain after working out that is higher than a three out of 10, you could be dealing with a strain or injury.
This doesn’t mean you need to roll up your yoga mat or shelve the dumbbells to avoid rocking a 10 out of 10 back pain score. Instead, build up core strength and protect your spine with these exercise tips.
What causes back pain?
There are three main sources of back pain: sprains, strains and disc herniations.
Sprains occur when the ligaments around the spine are stretched in the wrong direction or, in more severe cases, tear, Liem says. Ligaments tie bones to bones, so if you are doing an exercise where you bend or turn it can cause a sprain in your ligaments.
Strains occur when you twist, pull or tear your muscles or tendons, which can cause a twinge-like pain in your back. Muscles move bones, and you have tiny muscles within your spine that can get pulled during exercise — especially if your workout involves repetitive motion, lots of jumping or twisting, or if you are overtraining and don’t give your muscles a chance to recover.
Disc herniations occur when one of the small, squishy discs between the vertebrae in your spine gets squeezed, causing it to rupture and leak fluid. This can happen when you bend over (be it from a dead lift or from picking up your kid), and it causes intense pain and inflammation. As a result, your back muscles may seize up to prevent you from worsening the injury.
“A disc herniation can also sometimes push on the nerves in your back, which causes pain to radiate in your leg from the pinched nerve,” Liem says.
The thing all three types of back pain have in common? None are any fun, and you want to do your best to avoid them.
How can you avoid injuring your back while working out?
Avoid back pain by using proper form while you exercise and incrementally increasing the difficulty of your workouts.
While proper form is going to be different for different exercises, in general you want to keep your spine straight and your core activated and tight for support.
“Using a mirror is helpful when doing exercises,” Liem says. “Do your planks and side planks in front of a mirror so you can see if your hip is dropping down or you’re curling your spine.”
If you aren’t sure where to start or have been experiencing pain, he encourages connecting with a doctor for additional support.
“Especially if you are working out at home, connecting with a physical therapist or sports medicine expert can help,” Liem says. “They can sometimes do telemedicine visits with you to go through and make sure you’re doing good form on the exercises.”
What muscles should you strengthen to prevent back pain?
Using good form and getting help builds a foundation for protecting your spine. From there, the best way to prevent back pain is to strengthen your core.
“The thought is if you can brace your core and stabilize it, you aren’t putting additional stress on the main structure of your spine, or the discs, bones and joints,” Liem says. “You want to activate the muscles of the core first.”
You can imagine your core muscles as a box, at the top of which is your diaphragm (between your lungs) and the bottom is your pelvic floor. Within this box are the rest of the muscles of your core, which help support your spine.
Along with your diaphragm and pelvic floor, some of the main muscles you want to strengthen are your transversus abdominis, which act as a brace around the front of your body (imagine a corset, only made of ab muscles); multifidus, which are small muscles along your spine that help with stability; and your internal and external obliques (the muscles on your sides that help you twist and rotate your spine).
What exercises help prevent back pain?
Knowing the names of main core muscles is good but knowing how to activate them is better.
“If you make your muscles stronger, when you go to reach down and pick something up, you’ll have the endurance to not get stretched,” Liem says.
He recommends first learning how to engage your core and then moving to what’s known as the Big Three, a group of exercises determined by spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill to build core endurance and stabilize your spine.
Abdominal hollowing and bracing
While great for everyone, this exercise is especially helpful for beginners and for people currently experiencing back pain because it teaches you to engage your transversus abdominis (the muscle that supports you in a brace). This way you know how to engage your core before you start adding additional movements that could cause pain if you aren’t careful.
“For abdominal hollowing, you hollow out your abdomen and pull your belly button toward your spine. For abdominal bracing, you tighten up your core and squeeze your belly,” Liem says.
You can do these exercises as a warmup or on their own by completing thirty reps of five second holds for each exercise.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a great core workout!
To do a bird dog, start on all fours with a neutral spine, like you would if you were doing a tabletop position in yoga. Stretch out one leg and the opposite arm and hold them out parallel to the ground for a couple seconds, then bring them back to the ground and switch sides.
Similar to a side plank, this exercise is all about tightening your core so that your spine is straight and your hips don’t dip down.
If you’re just starting out, lay on your side with your legs stacked on top of each other and knees bent. With your forearm resting on the ground, push up so your hips are in the air and your spine is straight. Hold the position for several seconds then rest back down. Switch sides, and repeat.
If you’d like to increase the intensity of the exercise, you can move to a side plank by straightening your legs and supporting yourself on stacked feet instead of your knees.
Modified curl up
This slight variation on a curl up involves lying on your back with one leg bent.
“You’re lying on your back, and you brace your abdominal muscles and try to lift your shoulder blades up off of the ground,” Liem says.
You aren’t lifting your upper body all the way up (like you would in a sit up). Instead, you’re curling your upper back and holding your shoulders off the ground to help build core stability. Try to hold the position for a couple of seconds before lowering yourself back down.
Note that it’s important that you put your hands underneath your lower back during this exercise to maintain the natural curve of your spine.
The bottom line
You don’t have to live with back pain — and certainly not discomfort caused by your workout routine.
If you’re experiencing pain after a workout, allow yourself time to rest so your body can recuperate. And if acute pain persists, talk to your doctor about potential injuries, as well as pain management options like massage and deep heat treatments.
“If you’re struggling, feel free to reach out,” Liem says. “There’s no judgement — that’s a key thing. We’re here to help.”