Safe Leg Exercises for Bad Backs

Back pain can make you nervous about tying your shoes,and a workout seems out of the question. But, just because you have a bad back doesn't mean that you're done working out.

Safe Leg Exercises for Bad Backs (Image: jacoblund/iStock/GettyImages)

Rest may help for a time but often getting back in the gym and moving makes it feel better, according to an experts at Harvard Health. You can even do lower body exercises, as long as you choose the ones that are safe for your back.

How to Choose the Right Exercise

One of the most common ways that you can hurt your back in the gym is from lifting something too heavy. Whether your form was off or you used too much weight, lower body exercises like the deadlift can cause too much movement of the spine. This can cause an injury like a disc herniation or fracture of the spine that might be the source of your back pain.

If you've been cleared by a doctor to exercise again but aren't sure what to do, it's best to start simply. Some cable machine exercises, like the leg extension or leg curl, are safe since they don't put pressure on your back.

When you start doing these exercises, even though they're relatively safe for your back, you should still be cautious. Start with light weights and avoid exercises that aggravate your back pain. Don't push through, stop if you feel sharp or electrical pain.

One Leg Vs. Two

Generally, single-leg exercises are also easy on the back. That's because you can keep your torso straight and tall, minimizing movement of the spine, and still get a good leg workout because all of the weight is on one leg.

Definitely avoid exercises where you pick heavy weights up off of the ground. (Image: BartekSzewczyk/iStock/GettyImages)

In two-legged movements, like the squat and deadlift, you're at a higher risk for injury because you have to lean forward more at the torso and, since those movements are more powerful, you're going to be using more weight. Some two-legged exercises, like the glute bridge, are fine because they don't put much pressure on the back.

Split Squats

You'll be able to keep your back completely straight and even add some weight with this safe exercise.

Put a pad or soft surface on the floor. Step one foot in front of the pad and keep one foot behind. Keeping your torso tall, drop your back knee down to the pad and the rise back up, driving through both legs. Do 10 repetitions on one leg and then switch sides. You can hold a dumbbell in front of you in a goblet position or hold one in each hand.

Leg Extension

Sitting at a machine to work out your legs might not be ideal, but it is enough to get the job done while your back heals.

Sit at the leg extension machine and put your legs behind the pads. Extend your legs until your knees are straight, then lower them back down under control. You can also do this exercise with one leg at a time to make sure they stay balanced.

Leg Curl

Just like with the leg extension, the leg curl is a safe machine exercise that allows you to keep your hamstring muscle in shape while you recover.

Sit down at the machine and adjust it so that your legs are straight from the beginning. Slowly pull your heels towards your butt and then let them come back up under control. You can perform this exercise with one leg at a time as well.

Exercise Ball Leg Curl

If you don't have access to a machine, use this equally back-safe exercise.

Start sitting on the ground with an exercise ball in front of you. Lie on your back and put your heels on the ball. Your knees should be straight. Pull your heels towards your butt, rolling the ball towards you, as you bring your hips up into the air like you're doing a bridge.

Keep going until your body forms a straight line from your knees to your shoulders and the ball is close to your butt. Then, slowly extend your legs and drop your hips back down to the floor.

Glute Bridge

This exercise puts very little pressure on your back and can even help prevent back pain in the long-run.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground, a foot in front of your butt. Drive your hips up into the air until you form a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Squeeze your butt at the top and then lower yourself back down to the ground.


Start standing in front of a flat surface at least knee high, like a workout bench or box. Put one foot flat on the surface near the edge. Lean forward and step up onto the surface with your other foot. Then, step down with the same foot. Repeat ten times and switch sides to the other leg.

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