The Best Swimming Workouts for Low Back Pain

Photo: Todd Quackenbush

A smart way to beat the summer heat and alleviate low back pain is to swim. Swimming is a low-impact aerobic workout that relieves pressure on the joints and spine, while exercising the muscles in the back.

Benefits of Swimming

Strained muscles and/or ligaments in the back are the most common cause of low back pain. Swimming provides a non-weight bearing environment in which to exercise these muscles, easing stress on all joints in the body and increasing range of motion. The hydrostatic pressure of water also helps encourage healthy blood flow to the large muscles in the back, and the smaller muscle groups that help support them.

The best swim strokes for patients of low back pain are performed in a vertical or standing position to keep the spine neutral, and avoid hyperextension. Strokes that exercise the abdominal and hip muscles also improve back health, as a strong core is key to maintaining correct posture and a healthy spine.

Water Aerobics

If you are not a strong swimmer or are recovering from an injury, water aerobics can help condition your core and lower back muscles, and prepare your back for lap swimming. Start by walking or running in place in the water to get your heart rate elevated, and your joints unweighted. Walk about 10–20 steps forward, then walk backward, increasing speed to make it more difficult. Alternate jogging for 30 seconds with walking in place for 30 seconds for 5–10 minutes.

Once jogging in water has become easy, try a water aerobics class. The friction of the water will allow for gentle resistance throughout all movements, building the muscles around the joints and back. A good class should include a warm-up, cool-down and flexibility exercises that mimic land exercises, such as dancing, running and jumping jacks without the high impact.

Backstroke

If you suffer from rounded shoulders and/or back pain, try swimming in backstroke, which pulls the shoulders back into proper alignment, and strengthens the upper back and lats. The slight hip rotation during backstroke also engages the entire core, while the undulating movement from the kicks activates the lower back and core. Together, these movements strengthen the abdominal muscles and provide added support for your spine.

Pull Drill

Though the buoyancy of water eliminates the stress that is usually absorbed by the joints during exercise, swimmers can still overuse muscles in the back during strokes that rotate the body. Pull drills, swimming via arm movements with the legs isolated stretches the lower back muscles without hyperextending them. A pull buoy is a smart addition to pull drills, as the flotation device helps keep the body high in the water, improving both position and power.

When practicing a pull drill, keep a streamlined position and your head steady to master your balance and technique. Take long strokes for 4–8 laps, concentrating on elongating your body and stretching the muscles in your lower back as you swim. Remain balanced front to back and side to side, so that your lower half does not sink and your strokes are even on each arm.

Avoid Hyperextension

Proper technique is essential to protecting your spine while swimming. Over extension of the joints, tendons, or muscles in the back can occur during strokes that repetitively jerk the upper spine and neck, like front crawl, breaststroke or butterfly. Additionally, the higher a swimmer attempts to keep his/her head in the water or elevate the chest, the lower the legs will sink, causing hyperextension in the lower back.

As you swim, relax your neck and keep the crown of your head pointing forward, rather than lifted. Hold the lower abdominal muscles up and in to reduce the amount of movement in the neck. For each stroke, extend your arm to its maximum length, and reach forward from your shoulder to avoid a short, choppy stroke and a strained neck and upper spine.

Do you swim to relieve and/or prevent low back pain? Tell us if swimming is a part of your pain management plan on our Facebook page.