Lower back pain is annoying 🥴
That niggling, aching sensation can keep you from performing your favorite exercises in the gym – e.g. deadlifts and squats – for fear of further aggravating … well, whatever this is.
But, as you might have realized, staying clear of strength training exercises isn’t effective for low back pain relief. At all.
In fact, the pain might get even worst over time.
And so, in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to salvage your sanity, you might start doing 'stretches' meant to target (and eliminate) lower back pain. Examples include toe touches and stretches that involve the pulling of your knees to your chest.
Here’s the thing, though.
Many of these fail to target the underlying reasons for low back pain in the first place. Meaning? You aren’t going to see much pain relief – if at all.
Reasons for low back pain
- Lower back strength
- Glute strength
- Neuromuscular control
Given this information, you might start thinking … “Hey! That sounds like something doing deadlifts and squats can help with.” That’s true.
Research shows that these 2 compound movements elicit the highest lower back activation amongst all lower back exercises (yep, that includes isolation exercises!) They’re also fantastic exercises for the glutes.
But let's be honest. Trying to push through your deadlifts and squats when dealing with low back pain isn't a pleasant experience.
Plus, the squats and deadlifts are highly technical movements.
Without learning the proper mechanics or achieving the necessary mobility for a full range of motion (in the ankles, hips, etc.), you’d end up letting other muscle groups take over the load instead. That means you’d be failing to strengthen your lower back.
So … what are the less ‘technical’ exercises that’ll help you build up lower back and glutes strength you can try for low back pain relief? (While you work on your lifts, of course.)
Best low back pain relief exercises
We'll separate these exercises into 2 categories: those that target the lower back and those that target the glutes.
Lower back strengthening exercises
There are 2 lower back strengthening exercises you need to do if you have low back pain:
- Back extensions: While this is a relatively ‘easy’ exercise, there are a few execution tips you’ll have to keep in mind. Make sure that you’re performing the movement in a slow and controlled manner. Also, avoid over-arching your back – when you’re at the top of the movement, your entire body should be in a straight line.
- Bird dogs: Remember how a lack of neuromuscular control is also one of the reasons behind low back pain? Bird dogs are a fantastic exercise that’ll get your lower back muscles ‘talking’ to each other. Once again, with this exercise, avoid arching your lower back. Focus on keeping your back neutral throughout the movement. Proper bracing will help with this.
It’s pretty easy to see why a lack of lower back strength would contribute to low back pain. But what do your glutes have to do with it all?
If you’ve been reading all this while with this question hanging at the back of your mind … here’s the explanation you’ve been looking for (I’ve got you).
Imagine what happens when you have weak glutes – and you do exercises like squats and deadlifts. Because of how weak they are, your glutes wouldn’t be the ones moving the load.
Guess which muscle groups are instead? That's right. Your poor lower back.
So, what are some of the best glutes-strengthening exercises you can do? There are 3:
- Barbell hip thrusts: While you may be tempted to pile on the weights on the barbell for this movement, try not to – at least, until you've mastered the proper form. Always make sure you can maintain a posterior pelvic tilt at the top of the movement before progressing to heavier loads. Doing so keeps your lower back safe.
- Romanian deadlifts: To truly hit your posterior chain with this exercise, you'll first have to master the hinge movement. Another critical form tip to be mindful of is that you'll have to keep a neutral back throughout. Over-arching can place excessive stress on your lower back – and that can do more harm than good when it comes to low back pain relief.
- Bulgarian split squats: Painful as they are, Bulgarian split squats are one of the best low back pain relief exercises you can have in your training routine. Just make sure that you adopt a wider front-foot stance – doing so ensures that you’re placing most of the load on your glutes instead of your quads.
Muscle imbalances can make or break your gains
As should be clear to you by now, muscle imbalances can seriously hinder your progress in the gym, even when you think you’re doing everything right (e.g. making sure to progressive overload).
Weaknesses in a particular muscle group (like the glutes) and manifest as physical pain in another, seemingly unrelated muscle group – like your lower back.
And, unfortunately, if you fail to address the underlying reasons, you might continue to struggle with this chronic pain.
This may eventually hurt your overall training volume. And muscle gains (ouch!)
So, what’s the takeaway here?
Well, it'd be that you have to pay extra attention to how you structure your training plan. Make sure you're targeting all muscle groups evenly instead of biasing just a few 'aesthetic' muscle groups (say, your biceps or chest).
Need help with that? We’ve got just the thing for you.
GymStreak is an AI-powered trainer app that not only helps you plan your workouts but also makes it easy for you to track your progress in the gym.
With just a few taps on your phone, you’ll be able to visualize just how much training volume you’ve dedicated to each muscle group – and, in turn, which you need to prioritize a little more. Interested? Then you’re going to want to check out GymStreak now.Get GymStreak
Bigos, S. J., Holland, J., Holland, C., Webster, J. S., Battie, M., & Malmgren, J. A. (2009). High-quality controlled trials on preventing episodes of back problems: Systematic literature review in working-age adults. The Spine Journal: Official Journal of the North American Spine Society, 9(2), 147–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spinee.2008.11.001
Choi, B. K., Verbeek, J. H., Tam, W. W.-S., & Jiang, J. Y. (2010). Exercises for prevention of recurrences of low-back pain. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1, CD006555. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD006555.pub2
Nuzzo, J. L., McCaulley, G. O., Cormie, P., Cavill, M. J., & McBride, J. M. (2008). Trunk muscle activity during stability ball and free weight exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(1), 95–102. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31815ef8cd
Pollock, M. L., Leggett, S. H., Graves, J. E., Jones, A., Fulton, M., & Cirulli, J. (1989). Effect of resistance training on lumbar extension strength. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 17(5), 624–629. https://doi.org/10.1177/036354658901700506