Laura Flynn Endres
Have Back Pain? Do This.
Updated: Jul 14, 2021
Ask anywhere who experiences back pain, and every hand will go up.
Whether it's from an injury, poor posture, sleeping "wrong," or stress, back pain is so common as to be ubiquitous.
As a personal trainer, my role is not to diagnose or try to cure your back pain. My role is to help you improve your strength, endurance, mobility and flexibility in spite of it. We work around the pain.
But experience has shown that with a combined focus on building strength in the right muscles, improving movement patterns to be able to move with ease and proper form, and stretching, many clients experience less pain and therefore relief! *
* I recommend you see your doctor before beginning any fitness program in order to diagnose the cause of your pain and determine the best and safest course of action. That may be physical therapy first. Think of physical therapists as the ones who get you ready to see me!
Once you've gotten the go-ahead from your doctor, here's my three-pronged approach to helping you keep your back as pain-free as possible.
People are big on stretching, but a missing piece for many people is mobility. Mobility is moving joints and body parts through a full range of motion. For example, you should be able to bend, arch, reach and twist with enough ease to do daily tasks without worry.
Here are some of my favorite mobility drills. Start with 3 sets of 30-60 seconds each.
Cat to Cow - wave between the two positions slowly and with control.
This one is SO GOOD:
If the muscles that support your ability to have good posture and quality mobility are weak, you're more prone to injury. You may simply lack the muscle endurance needed to sit and move with good posture!
EXERCISE #1 - Use Proper Posture
Start focusing on sitting and standing with proper posture. ALL THE TIME.
It sounds small, but you'll find it's harder than it sounds and you'll find yourself slumping back into poor posture without even realizing it. Every time you notice, correct it.
Pay particular attention when sitting for work, while driving, while sitting on the bleachers at your kid's baseball game, and while standing in line at the grocery store.
Like the image above, good posture doesn't mean arching your back and puffing your chest out. If means being in alignment and "growing" an inch taller through the crown of your head. Notice how from the side view, your ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, and ear should be in vertical alignment. (Most people have a rounded upper back and forward head posture.)
Can you feel how getting into that posture and holding it requires your muscles to work? It's not intense work, but it takes a bit of effort.
BONUS: The body language of sitting, standing and walking with good posture "says" you're confident, strong, and in control!
EXERCISE #2 - Work your front ab muscles.
My favorite exercise of all time for working your transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis muscles is the Dead Bug. Your goal is to lock your hips and ribcage to the floor and keep them there as you extend with one leg and both arms. You'll keep the natural curve of your lower back, but otherwise the goal is to keep your ribs from arching away from the floor.
If they do, don't lower your arms and leg so far. Find the "challenging but doable" level.
Start with 3 sets of 45 seconds. Exhale as you return your leg and arms to the starting position.
Other gentle exercises for your abs:
LEAN BACK FLY for ABS
This is a great way to work your abs without going to the floor! Sit tall and reach your arms forward. Keep a long, neutral spine as you lean back a few inches until you feel your ab muscles working to hold that position. Keep your neck in line with your spine, or tuck your chin just a bit - you shouldn't feel strain in your neck.
Now open and close your arms in front.
Start with 3 sets of 30 seconds. Exhale at the hardest part of the exercise.
LONG LEG CHEST LIFT
With your legs extended and one ankle crossed over the other, aim to use your ab muscles to curl up. Let your head relax into your hands. Don't pull with the arms, simply support your head and neck as you curl your head and shoulder blades off the floor. Your chin should be about an inch off your chest in the curled up position.
Do 30 seconds. Then, cross the other leg on top and repeat. Exhale on the lift.
EXERCISE #3 - Work your back muscles.
Most people work the shit out of their abs and ignore working the muscles of the back. This can actually magnify any imbalance and make your back discomfort worse rather than better.
Do we walk around crunching and curling forward all day? No. But that's what you're training when all you do is crunches and sit-ups.
So quit it. *smiles sweetly*
Your back muscles may be weak from poor posture as well as "babying" your back. It's understandable - we adopt strange movement patterns to avoid back pain. But that has also caused your back muscles to weaken, and we need strength to support daily activity.
Here are several gentle back exercises to try. Do one or two in every workout.
Start with 3 sets of 30 seconds. Do not hold your breath.
EXERCISE #4 - Work your oblique muscles.
Your obliques help you bend and twist. In addition to strengthening these muscles to support your core and back, twisting can also provide some relief from the tension we carry in our back muscles.
The Oblique Knee Drop is a great place to start. Level I, with feet on the floor, will improve mobility. Level II, with feet lifted, provides a gentle challenge to the oblique muscles. Keep your shoulder blades pinned to the mat, and exhale and flex your abs to pull the legs back to center.
I never make it a goal to drop the knees all the way to the floor. That's too extreme. Drop the knees partway. You can pause in that position, then control the return.
Use your abs to pull the knees back to center. Relax the legs as much as possible - they're only going along for the ride.
Start with 3 sets of 30 seconds, or 3 sets of 10 reps.
Here are a few other oblique exercises to try.
This one is harder than it looks:
EXERCISE #4 - Work your glutes.
My clients know I'm big on "butt stuff." (It's become a bit of a joke.)
Strong glutes can help reduce and prevent back discomfort as they're critical to hip mobility and posture. They support your hips and knees in safe movement.
Oh, and if you're a runner? Work your damn glutes!
Add one or more of these exercises to every workout. Try 3 sets of 30-60 seconds.
Some people think you should stretch before you move and build strength. I disagree. I believe we need to be flexible enough to have quality movement and joint integrity, but I don't view "being really flexible" as a goal for every client.