When most of us think about exercising with lower back pain, we think about workarounds. As in, “is that squat going to hurt? And what variations can I sub in to prevent a flare-up?”
But, according to new research, we should actually be asking, “what can I do to strengthen my core?” After all — while four out of five people will battle back pain at some point in their lives, per the American Chiropractic Association — the 2018 study from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center shows that weak core muscles in runners (and, probably, any exerciser) can increase the risk of lower back pain. Meanwhile, 2017 research out of Pakistan shows that performing core stabilization exercises is more effective than traditional physical therapy at reducing lower back pain.
Why? Because the deep-lying core muscles, such as the transverse abdominis (which hook in and around the spine) serve to stabilize the body’s entire midsection, explains Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault flexibility and mobility online program. But when one muscle, or group of muscles, is weak, another one is forced to pick up the slack, he says.
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For example, in The Ohio State study, researchers found that when people’s deep core muscles were weak, running placed excess stress on their more superficial core muscles, as well as the spine. Over time, these compensations can cause wear and tear and painful overuse injuries, Wickham explains.
Unfortunately, most of us head into our workouts with pretty weak, inactive core muscles. (Thanks, desk job.) That’s why, to both ease and reduce the risk of mid-workout back pain, Wickham recommends adding core exercises to your pre-workout warm-up.
Start with these six core exercises, courtesy of Wickham, performing them back-to-back before any workout or as a standalone core workout.
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The Core Workout to Help Relieve Lower Back Pain
1. Dead Bug
How to: Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs up in the air, knees bent and arms straight. Press your lower back into the floor, and brace your core (a). From here, lower one leg until your heel just about touches the floor while also lowering your opposite arm toward the floor above your head (b). Pause, then squeeze your core to lift them back up to return to start (c). Repeat with the opposite arm and leg (d). Continue alternating for 30 seconds. Repeat three times.
2. Low Side Plank Hold
How to: Get into a side plank on your forearm and knees so that your shoulder is directly over your elbow and your knees are stacked on top of each other and in line with your shoulders. Brace your core and hold. Don’t let your hips rotate or sag. Repeat on the opposite side. Perform two 20-second holds per side. If that’s too easy, raise up off of your knees (as shown above) so that you’re still balancing on your forearm, but with feet stacked.
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3. Segmented Cat-Camel
How to: Start on your hands and knees, wrists under shoulders and knees under hips (a). Squeeze your core and glutes and round your back up toward the ceiling, tucking your chin to your chest (b). From here, slowly reverse the arch in your back, starting at your tailbone and ending at your neck. Continue until your entire back is curved toward the floor and you look up toward the ceiling (c). Now reverse the motion, starting at your neck and moving back down toward your tailbone to return to the starting position (d). That’s one rep, which should take a minimum of 15 seconds. Complete 5 reps.
4. Bird Dog
How to: Start on the floor, on your hands and knees with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Look toward the floor, just in front of your hands. Brace your core to maintain a flat tabletop position (a). From here, extend one arm and the opposite leg up and away from your body so that they are parallel to the floor (b). Pause for three seconds, then slowly lower to return to start (c). Repeat on the opposite side (d). That’s one rep. Perform two sets of 8-12 reps.
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5. Pallof Press
How to: Stand in a quarter squat with one side of your body facing a cable station. Hold the cable’s handle with both hands at navel-height (a). From here, press the handle straight out in front of you, making sure your body doesn’t turn to one side (b). Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start (c). Perform 12-15 reps, then repeat on the opposite side.
6. Lying Windshield Wipers
How to: Lie face-up on the floor with your arms straight out from your sides. Raise your feet off of the floor so that your knees and hips are bent to 90 degrees, and press your low back into the floor. Brace your core to maintain this position (a). From here, keeping your legs together, slowly lower your legs as far as you can to one side without lifting your shoulders or low back off of the floor (b). Pause, then reverse the movement to return start (c). Repeat on the opposite side (d). That’s one rep. Perform 8 reps.
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