For people experiencing lower back pain, relief is the first thing on their mind when they begin to exercise as part of their treatment plan. Unfortunately, many of the stretches and exercises for lower back pain can actually cause more harm than good when done improperly, and some should be avoided altogether. Here are four stretches for lower back pain that can be injurious if not done correctly, five exercises to avoid, and one stretch to avoid completely.
Four stretches to be careful with if you have lower back pain
It should be noted that we have recommended these stretches on this blog for many types of lower back pain. It is important to consult with your doctor before beginning a new exercise plan, especially if you are in pain or injured. The stretches below can all provide lasting pain relief and stretching for lower back pain, but they need to be completed slowly with proper form to be safe and effective.
1. Both knees to chest
When you bring both knees to the chest, the lumbar curve flattens out, which can make back pain worse in the long run (even if it feels good in the moment). Make this stretch better by moving the tailbone down towards the feet and engaging the abdominal muscles as you raise your knees. Keeping your head on the floor (instead of curling in) and only bringing your knees perpendicular (instead of all the way to the chest) can also help make this a more beneficial stretch.
2. Single knee to chest
This stretch can be harmful for the same reason as bringing both knees into the chest. To protect your back and gain benefit, keep the extended leg active (feet flexed with toes pointing towards the ceiling) and draw the knee up on an exhale, keeping it perpendicular to the body. Lengthen your tailbone down towards the extended foot to engage supportive abdominal muscles as you raise and lower each leg.
3. Knee across the chest
This twist can be very intense and cause harm if you go too far, too fast. Raising the knee into the chest and bringing it across the body can increase lower back pain and cause harm if there is not enough length in the spine. If you want to work on twisting, go slowly. Raise your knee as suggested above, then only move it across your body until your hips come off the floor, then back off. This is a more gradual exercise that stabilizes the sacrum and stretches the supportive muscles on the thighs and buttocks.
4. Knees to one side
Pressing both knees together and dropping them to the side can be extremely painful if you dive right in. Take your time. Instead of dropping them all the way to the side, rock gently in a limited range of motion, exhaling as you move them to each side to engage the abdominal muscles, then inhaling back to center. Lengthening your tailbone down towards the feet also helps ground and stabilize the pelvis, which can also protect your lower back.
Five exercises to avoid if you have lower back pain
While cardiovascular fitness is important, those with lower back pain should run away from this exercise. The impact of the foot hitting the ground is jarring and can increase pain exponentially.
Building core strength is a great way to heal and prevent lower back pain, but sit-ups are not the way to go. The majority of people perform sit-ups incorrectly, only exercising superficial muscles in the abdomen and placing tremendous pressure on the lower back.
3. Double leg lifts
Bodyweight exercises like leg lifts can be effective when done properly, but most people use their lower back to hoist both legs simultaneously. This is not only ineffective but can also result in more injury and lower back pain.
Burpees, that combination of jumping, bending, and push-ups, can be a great way to improve overall fitness. That is, if you aren’t already experiencing lower back pain. The speed at which burpees are done combined with the high-impact stages of the exercise can increase lower back pain exponentially. Burpees are difficult to complete with proper form for those people without pain. Lower back pain makes it nearly impossible.
5. Foam roller
While not an exercise, many people are prescribed a foam roller to iron out lower back pain, but there are a few problems with this. For pain that is a result of nerve impingement in the spine, a foam roller does nothing and can actually cause increased muscle soreness as you work to get deeper into the body. Foam rollers are also often unable to get to the actual source of the pain and may press on internal organs that are not protected by the stronger muscles of the lower back.
Lower back pain – one exercise to avoid at all costs
Many patients with lower back pain think they are doing something good when they reach down to the ground for their toes. Indeed, it may feel good – up to a point. This intense forward fold can be extremely taxing for the ligaments and discs in the spine. It can also place direct pressure on areas that are painful and de-stabilize areas of the spine that should be steady (the sacrum, for example).
There is also the danger of overstretching back muscles and hamstrings in an effort to reach the ground. Many people believe that touching their toes or the ground is the best way to improve flexibility (and thus improve lower back pain), but in reality they may be causing more pain and increasing their recovery time. Proper exercises for lower back pain are a balance of strength and flexibility. Focusing on reaching for the toes without strength can make the entire lower back vulnerable.
If you suffer from lower back pain, try these five exercises that promote strength and flexibility.