Four of every five American adults experience lower back pain during their lives, according to the Mayo Clinic. About a quarter of them have had pain in the last three months.
Lower back pain is so prevalent because it has many causes. Mild muscle strains or bulging or ruptured discs can cause back pain. You can hurt your lower back by lifting heavy items incorrectly, falling or slouching while you sit. Stress and obesity can also contribute to lower back pain, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
While you can treat a balky lower back with rest, medicine and heat or ice pads, lower back training can also help. By building the strength you're missing, lower back weight lifting can support your spine, reduce stress on your back and ease pain.
Check out these four foundational lower back strength-training exercises as well as tips for strengthening your back muscles both safely and effectively.
Consult your physician prior to strength training with lower back pain.
4 Weight-Lifting Exercises for Your Lower Back
Move 1: Deadlift
- Fix the weight plates on your barbell and position it on the floor in front of you. If needed, position it on an elevated platform to allow for a reduced range of motion.
- Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
- Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
- Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you push your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
- Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
- Return the bar by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the bar travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.
The deadlift is one of the best exercises you can do for your backside. It works your hamstrings and lower back, which often go neglected. Keep in mind, however, that while you should feel your lower back muscles working during deadlifts, you should not feel any pain there. If you do, you are likely using incorrect form.
To avoid excess back stress during deadlifts, keep the bar close to your body at all times, fight the urge to arch your lower back, and raise the bar by driving through your legs rather than pulling through your arms.
You can perform deadlifts with free weights other than barbells. If you've never before done a deadlift, start with deadlift variations using dumbbells or kettlebells.
Move 2: Good Morning
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees very slightly. Hold a barbell at the top of your shoulders, behind your neck, and engage your core muscles.
- Bend at the hips, pressing your hips back rather than simply leaning forward.
- Keep your spine and neck in alignment. Your head should stay in a neutral position.
- Continue bending with your hips pressing back until your hamstring muscles begin to limit your movement.
- Reverse the movement to return to standing. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement.
Not just a friendly greeting, the good morning exercise is a phenomenal lower back weight-training move.
The good morning is similar to a deadlift, but involves bending even further through your hips so that your torso lowers to near parallel with the floor. That increases how much your lower back muscles have to work to raise the weight.
Also, like the deadlift, the good morning requires great attention to form. Start with an empty bar and progress the exercise as you're comfortable.
Move 3: Hollow Hold
- Lie on your back with your arms extended overhead and legs straight.
- Using your core, lift your head, shoulder blades and legs off the ground. Keep your biceps by your ears and actively press your lower back into the floor to ensure you're engaging your abs throughout the entire exercise.
- Hold this position and remember to breathe.
You don't have to specifically work your lower back to develop strength there. You can also use exercises that work other parts of your core, including your abs.
Lower ab exercises in particular help strengthen the lower back and reduce pain. These exercises require a stable back and strengthen your spine-supporting core muscles, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Move 4: Double Leg Lift
- Lie on your back with your legs out straight, arms at your sides.
- Brace your core and root your lower back into the ground.
- Keeping your feet together and legs straight, use your abs to raise your legs up toward the ceiling until your feet and knees are stacked directly over your hips.
- Lower your legs back down with control, keeping your lower back in contact with the floor.
- Hover your feet just above the ground before lifting for the next rep.
Leg lift exercise variations target your lower abs, but like hollow holds, they also have huge benefits for your lower back. During the leg lift, the core complex is in charge of stabilizing the rest of your body, especially if you do the exercise without a back support.
Once you master this exercise, you can add weight by securing a light dumbbell between your feet.
4 Tips for Weight Training for Lower Back Pain
1. Start Slow
When strength training with a bad back, your weight-training program should progress slowly to allow the body to adapt without re-injury.
Resistance training breaks down muscles and bone to promote strength gains. But rest and recovery between weight-training sessions allows the body to heal and grow back stronger, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Gradually increase the weight or resistance of an exercise after the current weight becomes easy. Perform lower back weight training on nonconsecutive days to ensure proper recovery between workouts.
2. Make Form Your Main Goal
Although weight training can help strengthen your lower back muscles, improper technique may cause re-injury. For individualized form advice, consult a personal trainer or physical therapist. These professionals can also create weight-training program that's specific to your needs.
3. Prioritize Compound Lifts
Compound exercise are dynamic in nature and work multiple muscle groups and joints at once, according to the ACE. Functional strength-training exercises often resemble activities such as carrying grocery bags, lifting boxes and moving furniture. They can increase strength and stability of the lower back during everyday activities.
Progressions include increasing the weight or number of repetitions. You can also move to more advanced exercise variations.
4. Integrate Some Isolation Exercises
Back hyperextensions are one example that trains the lower back. Many resistance machines allow for isolation (aka one-plane) movements such as torso flexion and extension. Perform these exercises with a light load, and increase repetitions as you progress.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Low Back Pain Fact Sheet"
- Mayo Clinic: "Infographic: Back Pain"
- ACE: "5 Benefits of Compound Exercises"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Why a Strong Core Can Help Reduce Low Back Pain"
- ACE: "Know Your Recovery Strategies"
- ExRx.net: Barbell Deadlift
- ExRx.net: Barbell Good-Morning
- ExRx.net: Hanging Leg Raise