Your lower back muscles help support your entire spine, especially when you’re in a seated position. If you spend a great deal of your time sitting, you may find yourself experiencing lower back pain.
While acute lower back pain sometimes indicates a more serious medical issue, most often it’s caused by strain and tension.
This usually arises when you have weak core muscles, which are all the muscle groups in your torso involved in supporting your upper body and keeping your spine straight, upright and in a neutral posture.
Strengthening your lower back muscles and your entire core can prevent the strain and pain you feel in your lower back.
In this article, we’ll look at specific exercises that can help you strengthen your lower back and core at the same time.
The Problem of a Weak Lower Back & Core
If your lower back arches to an overly excessive degree, this is known as hyperlordosis. It’s often a sign of weak lower back muscles, as well as weak abdominals and a tight lower back. A lot of the time it is also accompanied by an anterior tilt of the pelvis.
If you have hyperlordosis, you may also likely round your shoulders and curve your upper back forward, so that your spine makes an “S” shape. Together these postural dysfunctions make up what is known as Upper Crossed Syndrome.
You can already see why a strong lower back is important for good posture. But as we already discussed, the lower back is just one part of the core, which also includes the muscles at the front of the torso. This means that having strong abdominals is also important.
Your back muscles oppose your abdominals, so neither one is more important than the other when it comes to good back support.
If they aren’t equally strong and supportive, you could end up with bad alignment and back pain. What tends to happen is an opposing muscle imbalance characterized by weak and loose abs, and excessively tight lower back muscles. This causes lower back pain by compressing your lumbar spine.
It’s normal for your lower back to be slightly curved, but it shouldn’t be so curved that your lower back muscles are stuck in a tight, shortened and knotted position that causes pain. This means that stretching the lower back is just as important as strengthening it.
The Benefits of Strengthening Your Lower Back and Core
Having a strong core overall will help stabilize and support your torso so the weight doesn’t all fall onto your lower back.
Here are the benefits of core strength training and why it relieves lower back pain:
Poor posture leads to slouching, which puts strain on your lower back when you sit. It also causes a curved spine when standing, which also strains your back. Whereas poor posture leads to pain, sitting and standing in the correct posture can prevent it.
Strength training is key to improving posture. Strong muscles in your torso keep it upright, whereas weak muscles cause you to slouch under your own weight.
By fixing the muscle imbalance between your lower back and your abs, core strength training can help reverse hyperlordosis.
Strengthening your abdominal muscles tightens and shortens them, which lengthens your lower back as a result.
Prevent Strains and Sprains
When your core isn’t strong, your muscles can easily strain when you lift something heavy or hold an unnatural posture for a prolonged period.
If a ligament, tendon or muscle in your lower back becomes strained or even sprained, it can feel painful for days after the event. It can result from bending at your back to lift heavy things, twisting awkwardly or from postural stress.
In addition to pain, you may also experience swelling and muscle spasms . Strong core muscles prevent straining and sprains because larger, stronger muscles are recruited instead of small muscles, tendons or ligaments that can easily get hurt.
Better Circulation and Spine Health
Strength training and other types of exercise, as well as stretching and massaging, all help improve your circulation.
Good circulation is critical for virtually every function in the body, but it’s especially important for spinal health. Moving around allows the soft disks between vertebrae to soak up fresh blood and nutrients.
Activating your core muscles and challenging them with strength training exercises gets your blood flowing through your spine so that it can maintain its health and flexibility.
Without enough microcirculation through your spinal disks, they begin to harden, which results in pain and higher risks for sprains and more serious injuries like herniated disks .
The Core Muscles that Need Your Attention
Several weak muscles can lead to lower back pain, besides the lower back muscles themselves.
Weakness in any of these muscles, which are responsible for supporting and moving your torso, can cause your lower back to strain as it picks up the slack.
So we’ll also be looking to strengthen these muscles as well in the exercise section.
Your extensor muscles are a muscle group that includes your lower back muscles, known as erector spinae.
These muscles support your spine and your glutes, and they help move the trunk of your body so that you can bend and twist.
Your hip flexors oppose the erector spinae, as they’re attached at the front of your spine. They support your spine and allow you to flex and bend at your lower back.
Your oblique muscles support your spine on either side and help it to rotate. They protect your lower spine by preventing too much rotation and bending.
If you have hyperlordosis, strengthening your obliques can help stabilize your pelvis and prevent it from tilting. Tighter obliques help hold your pelvis posteriorly, whereas people with hyperlordosis have an anterior pelvic tilt .
Your abdominals, or rectus abdominis, is a large muscle group at the front of your torso, extending from your rib cage down to the top of your pubic bone.
Research shows there’s a direct correlation between loose, mushy abs and lower back pain .
The transverse abdominis, or TVA muscle, is the innermost layer of abdominal tissue, beneath the rectus abdominis and obliques.
If you have hyperlordosis, strengthening this muscle can help you reverse it. The TVA acts like a girdle for your lower torso by resisting flexion of the lower back .
The multifidus is a thin, long muscle group that runs the entire length of your spine, right next to the vertebrae. It supports each joint in your spine and helps with spinal movements such as bending and twisting .
Top 10 Core Strengthening Exercises for Lower Back Pain
Muscular strength and flexibility are key to maintaining a neutral spine position and preventing back pain. We’ve rounded up the best core strengthening exercises you can start doing right away to help prevent lower back pain.
If you experience any hot, tingling or sharp pains, your back pain could be caused by a more serious underlying issue, so be sure to check with a doctor.
1. Pelvic Tilts
Pelvic tilts are a very small movement, but they help you reconnect with the small stabilizer muscles in your core, while releasing lower back tightness. Practising these regularly helps retrain your posture and reverse hyperlordosis.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Tighten your abdominals and draw them inward toward your spine as you rotate your pelvis posteriorly, so that your lower back lengthens. Your buttocks should just barely come off the floor.
- Release and relax, then repeat for more reps.
Bridges are just like pelvic tilts, except you take them a step further by lifting your hips off the floor as high as you can. Besides working the glutes, it also strengthens your lower back muscles, including the erector spinae. Like pelvic tilts, they help retrain your posture.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Keep your arms by your sides on the floor, with your palms down.
- Tighten your abs, glutes and hips as you lift your buttocks off the floor, supporting your weight evenly with your arms, shoulders and feet. Keep your tailbone tucked under your pelvis in a pelvic tilt.
- Slowly lower down and repeat for more reps.
3. Abdominal Crunches
Abdominal crunches target your rectus abdominus, which are your “6-pack” abs that help support your spine and keep your hips aligned in a neutral position.
When your abs are loose and weak, the back compresses under your weight and the muscles in the low back become shortened and tight. Doing crunches and other ab exercises will help take the burden off your back and balance the opposing muscle groups.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
- Interlace your hands behind your head to support your neck.
- Without pulling on your head, contract your abs and lift your upper back and head off the floor.
- Lower down slowly to complete one rep, and then repeat for more reps.
4. Forearm Plank
A forearm plank challenges your entire core, by requiring you to use the muscular corset around your torso to keep yourself in a tabletop position.
- Place your forearms on a mat, with your elbows directly beneath your shoulders.
- Tighten your core, glutes and legs as you ground your toes into the mat. Only your toes, elbows, forearms and hands should be touching the mat.
- Focus on lengthening your spine and maintaining a flat back. Keep your legs and pelvis in alignment with your spine. Look directly down so that your neck is aligned with your spine, with the crown of your head lengthening away from your body.
- Hold the plank for as long as you can maintain the correct form.
5. Standard ‘High’ Planks
Standard planks recruit virtually all the muscles in your core, but they’re also more challenging for your arms, shoulders and chest than forearm planks, because there’s more of your upper body to support.
- Get to the top of a push-up position with your hands and toes supporting you. Your elbows should be straight (but not locked), and your palms should be directly under your shoulders.
- Squeeze your core and lengthen your spine, tucking your tailbone under. Focus on maintaining a lengthened, flat back, making a straight line from your heels to your head.
- Hold for as long as you can, and then slowly lower down.
6. Side Planks
Side planks challenge the sides of your core more than normal planks. Just like with regular planks, alignment and form are key to getting the benefits of this exercise.
- Start on your side, with your legs and feet stacked one on top of the other.
- Support yourself with one hand, directly under your shoulder.
- Lift your hips and legs off the ground, so that you’re supporting yourself with the one hand and your bottom foot.
- Reach your other arm up so that it makes a straight line with your supporting arm.
- Draw your abs and glutes inward and make a straight line from your feet to your head.
- Hold for as long as you can before switching sides.
Supermans strengthen all the extensor muscles along your back that help support your spine and pelvis in a neutral posture. If it’s too challenging for you, start by doing upward facing dog pose, which is a yoga posture that can help prepare your back for doing supermans.
- Lie flat on a mat with your stomach facing down and your arms extended above your head.
- Lift your head, hands and feet off the ground simultaneously as you squeeze your back muscles and glutes.
- Keep your abdominals drawn inward to help support you.
- Look down at the floor to keep your neck aligned with your spine.
- Hold the position for up to 5 seconds, then slowly lower down and repeat for more reps.
8. Bird Dogs
This is a stability exercise targeting many different muscles that are involved in maintaining good posture.
- On a mat, get in a tabletop position, with your hands and knees on the floor.
- Your knees should be directly under your hips, bent at a 90-degree angle. Your hands directly under your shoulders, with your fingertips facing forward.
- Extend your right arm directly overhead, so that it’s right next to your ear. At the same time, lift your left leg and straighten it directly behind you.
- Focus on maintaining a flat back and neutral pelvis as you lower down and switch to the other arm and leg.
- Repeat for more reps.
Scissors target your abs, but also they strengthen all the back muscles that stabilize your spine, because you need them to prevent your back from arching as you perform the exercise.
- Lie on your back with your arms down by your sides.
- Lift your legs about 6 inches off the ground.
- Press your lower back into the mat and squeeze your abs.
- Spread your legs about 1 or 2 feet apart, and then bring them together, crossing one foot over the other.
- Open your legs again and then cross the opposite foot over.
- Continue crisscrossing your feet like scissors, without letting your torso wiggle or your lower back arch. You don’t have to do the motion quickly; do it as slowly as you need to in order to maintain your form.
- Continue for as many seconds as you can, and then relax.
10. Dead Bugs
Like bird dogs and scissors, dead bugs require you to squeeze your entire core in order to stabilize you and keep your back straight. It works your rectus abdominus and TVA, as well as the muscles that stabilize your spine, including the hip flexors.
- Lie on your back with your arms straight up toward the ceiling and your knees bent 90 degrees in a tabletop position over your hips
- Drop your right leg slowly to the ground and at the same time move your left arm overhead towards the ground. Keep both a few inches from the ground. Squeeze your glutes and keep your core engaged. Press your lower back into the floor.
- Bring your arm and leg back to the original position.
- Repeat on the opposite side to complete one rep.
Taking Care of Your Lower Back
Building core strength is one of the best defences against lower back pain, and developing strength requires consistency. Practice these exercises 3 to 4 times a week. If your muscles get sore from the exercises, avoid repeating them until the soreness goes away.
As you work on your strength, also work on improving your posture. Check your alignment by turning sideways in a mirror, and try to keep your spine long.
If the major muscles in your torso are weak, your body will recruit more passive structures, such as ligaments that connect bone to bone, for maintaining your posture and facilitating your movements. This is how core weakness translates to lower back pain.
By strengthening all the muscle groups in your core, you can improve your postural alignment and prevent strain in your lower back. Lower back pain that arises from postural stress and weak core muscles feels dull, tight and achy.
Before you go there a couple of other things to mention that can help you see even better progress.
- Strengthening your lower back is important but equally as important is making sure it doesn’t get too tight. Be sure to make sure you stretch out your lower back frequently.
- Consider trying out a lower back stretching device to help stretch out your back.
- Replacing a traditional office chair with either a kneeling chair or a stability ball chair can help with lower back pain.
- A tight lower back and weak core usually result in what is known as an anterior pelvic tilt. Be sure to correct any issues with your pelvis also. To find out more see our page on how to fix an anterior pelvic tilt.
- Consciously engage your core muscles as you sit and stand with an upright posture, and you’ll notice how recruiting them helps you stand up taller. Once you break the habit of slouching in your chair, you’ll start to notice your back feels healthier, and you won’t experience the aching pain.
Lower back pain is most common in people who don’t regularly exercise. When you do exercise or perform a physically challenging task after not exercising for a long time, you have a higher risk of straining your lower back.
Low-impact exercise helps maintain the health of your spinal disks by increasing the flow of blood to them. On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle causes them to stiffen and be more prone to pain and injury.
If you do the exercises above consistently you should see great results. If you have any serious conditions or experience severe low back pain always be sure to consult a health professional before trying out these exercises.