Warm-Up Exercises to Protect the Back

A thorough back warm-up is one of the most crucial parts in maintaining a healthy back, not to mention healthy muscles and joints throughout the rest of your body. All it takes is five minutes to perform a back warm-up, preparing it for the cardio or weightlifting workout ahead.

Warming up gently means less chance of back pain. (Image: Adobe Stock/Syda Productions)

Understand How Your Spine Moves

When crafting a warm-up routine for the spine, it's important to understand the different ways it can move. You can extend the spine backward, flex it forward, bend it to the left or right side and rotate it to the left or right. If you only bend the spine forward and backward, but never rotate it or bend it to the side, you're limiting what the spine is truly capable of.

You'll need to move your spine quite a bit during a workout. Running requires a fair amount of rotation, as do exercises like the lunge and dumbbell row. The deadlift and squat can cause some flexing of the spine, as do many ab exercises, so be sure to prepare for each different movement of the spine.

If you work at a desk or have another relatively sedentary job, chances are you don't move many of your joints through their full ranges of motion. But when you work out, you tend to use much greater ranges of motion. So your warm-up needs to include motions that you wouldn't normally do on a day-to-day basis. For example, the neck and lower back are naturally extended backward, so you should try to gently flex them forward.

In this warm-up, you'll flex the cervical and lumbar spine in the egg roll and toe touch and extend the thoracic spine in the foam roller back extension. Finally, you'll practice rotating your spine with a simple rock-back rotation and the slightly more complex Spiderman stretch with a rotation. Check out the University of Arkansas' comprehensive list of the muscles in the back.

1. Do the Egg Roll

Tuck and roll in this stretch to gently massage and lengthen your back. Keep your abs slightly contracted to help release any tight back muscles.

  1. Lie on your back on a soft surface.
  2. Hug your knees to your chest.
  3. Gently rock back and forth, gaining momentum each time, until you are rolling over the entire length of your spine with each rock back and forth.
  4. Roll for about one minute.

2. Foam Roller Back Extension

If you don't have a foam roller you can tape two tennis balls together or use a rolled-up blanket. Using a foam roller will reduce muscle tightness according to the American Council on Exercise.

  1. Sit on the floor with your knees bent and feet planted. Place a foam roller just above your lower back where your bottom ribs are.
  2. Lie back on the roller and reach your arms up overhead.
  3. Gently bend backward over the roller while exhaling, pushing your arms back and toward the floor.
  4. Come back up and move the foam roller up your back a few inches.
  5. Repeat this until the roller is in line with your shoulders.
  6. Perform this entire series twice.

3. Touch Your Toes

Not only does this exercise help you warm up your back, but it stretches some of the muscles around it, such as the hamstrings, which may also be tight.

  1. Stand with your feet together without locking your knees.
  2. Reach your arms up overhead and look up.
  3. Fold forward and reach your hands toward the floor. At the same time, push your hips back and shift your weight into your heels.
  4. When you feel that you can't reach any lower, roll up slowly and reach your arms up.
  5. Do 15 of these.

4. Rock-Back Rotation

This exercise prevents your lower back from moving too much, emphasizing rotation of the middle segment of your spine, known as the thoracic spine. This segment of the spine counts for two-thirds of the movement in your back.

  1. Start on all fours with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
  2. Rock your butt back onto your heels, keeping your hands planted.
  3. Put your right hand behind your head and turn your shoulders and head to the right as far as possible as you exhale.
  4. Come back to the center and switch sides.
  5. Do 10 rotations on each side.

5. Cat/Cow Stretch

Gently arch and round your back in this stretch according to ACE Fitness.

  1. Get on the floor on your hands and knees.
  2. Round your back and breathe out through your mouth.
  3. Then, arch your back and inhale through your nose.
  4. Perform 10 repetitions.

6. Climb the Ladder

In this exercise, you'll reach your arms up and pretend you're climbing a ladder to practice bending your spine side-to-side.

  1. Stand with a tall posture and reach your arms high up.
  2. Reach with your arms, one at a time, alternating each time. The goal is to reach as high as possible moving your shoulders and spine to help you reach higher.
  3. Perform 10 reaches with each arm.

7. World's Greatest Stretch

Not only does this exercise help you warm up your back, but it also stretches your hips and shoulders.

  1. Take a large, lunging step forward with your right foot.
  2. Bend the right knee to drop down into a lunge position.
  3. Place the left hand on the floor.
  4. Turn your shoulders and torso toward the right leg and reach your right arm up toward the ceiling.
  5. Perform five repetitions on each side.

8. Spiderman Stretch With Rotation

Stretch your hips, back and shoulders with this all-encompassing stretch.

  1. Start in a push-up position.
  2. Plant your left foot next to your left hand.
  3. Turn to the left and raise your left arm up toward the ceiling.
  4. Return to a push-up position.
  5. Repeat on the right side.
  6. Do 10 repetitions on each side.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you typically warm up before your workouts? What does your current warm-up look like? Will you use these exercises in your warm-up routine? Have you heard of any of them before? Which exercises feel the best on your back? What other warm-up exercises do you like? Have you ever had a back injury? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

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