There is No Such Thing as ‘Best Exercises for Low Back Pain’

The same goes for ‘avoid these exercises’ nonsense

Zachary Walston
May 9 · 5 min read
Photo by Joel Rivera-Camacho on Unsplash

Every day I see a plethora of articles saying something along the lines of “5 best exercises for shoulder back” or “if you do these three exercises you will ruin your back.”

They are all misinformation and negatively impacting people.

Want to know what the best exercises are for low back pain?

Any exercise.

Seriously.

Choose exercises you enjoy that is challenging

Research is clear that general exercise is beneficial for low back pain. It is the most important thing you can do for back health. Understanding pain is a close second.

Back pain is a part of life. You will experience it at some point. Perhaps the pain starts after sitting at a desk all day or after helping a friend move apartments. Here’s the good news. Most low back pain goes away within a couple of days, a few weeks at most.

One of the primary reasons for pain sticking around is a fear of activity. Anxiety and fear of current or future damage fuel inactivity.

Not moving is one of the worst things you can do for back pain.

If we enjoy the exercise, we are more likely to complete it. Don’t like lifting weights? No problem. Like hiking? That is great for your low back.

By resuming activity after feeling pain, you are telling your brain the pain is not to be feared. Movement stimulates recovery processes as well.

If the activity you love worsens the pain, ease into it or make a switch before trying again in a few days. Don’t worry about the type of activity being dangerous because it bends the back (e.g. bowling) as your spine is strong and resilient. It can handle the activities you throw at it.

There is no such thing as bad posture

The postural model does not hold up to rigorous research. There is no ideal position for standing, sitting, or squatting. No research to date has identified a level of stress that is too much for our bodies to handle, particularly regarding sitting or standing.

We need to encourage people to move more, not less. The message of an “ideal” posture or movement perpetuates a fear of activity when there is no research to support that posture predicts future pain or injury.

What about lifting posture? Research shows lifting with a rounded back is not only safe but often ideal. Furthermore, it is impossible to maintain a neutral lumbar spine past roughly 20 degrees of hip flexion.

Squats and deadlifts are part of life

If you are adamant I give you specific exercises that are great for low back pain, here you go.

Squat and deadlift often.

Yes, they are safe.

Squatting is a daily occurrence and one of the most fundamental movements you do in life. You squat to sit in a chair, use the bathroom, and pick up items from the floor. You will be hard-pressed to avoid the movement.

The squat is also considered the king of exercises. It is a fundamental movement that trains the whole body. If you add weight — carrying or on your shoulders — you are building upper body strength. The goal of exercise is to challenge the body. The squat does that. It is safe and effective.

If the squat is the king, the deadlift is next in line for the throne.

Agan, deadlifts are safe, and they are great for building back and leg strength — which often reduces following the onset of low back pain. They also reinforce the message that your back is robust and healthy. Research looking specifically at the deadlift has found the exercise to be beneficial for patients with low back pain.

If the pain is severe, the deadlift may not be the best option. There is no need to grit through the pain. But deadlifts should not be avoided altogether. They are something to work towards.

Don’t forget about your cardiovascular system

Aerobic exercise — also known as ‘cardio’ — is any type of exercise that conditions the cardiovascular system. Common aerobic exercises are running, biking, and rowing.

Aerobic training stimulates endorphin release — a chemical produced by the brain that reduces perceived pain. Along with directly reducing pain, aerobic training has psychological benefits. As a safe and effective way to encourage movement, it can reduce fear of movement (kinesiophobia) and increases self-confidence.

Research studies tend to use either cycling, walking, or running to test the effects of aerobic training for people with low back pain, but rowing and running are occasionally used as well. Benefits can be seen across a variety of intensity levels, too. This study showed 12 weeks of high-intensity running reduced low back pain, disability, and psychological strain. Another study found similar results one year later.

Enjoyment and consistency are important factors. If you hate running, it will not be the best option for treating your low back pain. Conversely, if you crave running and feel all other exercises are inferior, don’t worry about the impact of running. You are not creating any damage. Running is safe and effective.

Simple exercises are great too

Walking is one of the best forms of exercise, regardless of your current fitness level. Research shows walking is just as effective as other forms of exercise for treating low back pain. The benefits include building endurance, improving bone quality, and helping control blood sugar levels. Walking also helps with mental health.

Studies have shown walking can be used to help treat depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, psychological stress, social isolation, and loneliness. It a great exercise option for people with chronic low back pain.

People often find walking programs more enjoyable than typical gym exercises leading to better consistency, which is key for any exercise program.

Taking a long-term outlook

Please avoid any article claiming a group of 5–10 gimmicky exercises will ‘fix’ your alignment or improve your low back stability. There is nothing to fix. Your back is stable and is never out of alignment.

Most exercises with a band or contorting your body into a goofy position are neither enjoyable nor taxing to your body. The message of the overall importance of exercise is lost when trying to “fix” something.

Exercise is one of the best methods to prevent and treat low back pain. The goal is to establish a regular exercise routine that will improve your strength, endurance, and resilience. The exercises I provided are not intended to be short-term solutions, but rather, fundamental exercises to use regularly.

Next time you see an article that claims certain exercises are best or should be avoided with respect to pain, ignore it. I guarantee there isn’t a shred of credible research to back up the claims.

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In Fitness And In Health

Inspiring stories related to health, fitness and the pursuit of well-being.

Zachary Walston

Written by

A physical therapist tackling health misinformation | Elemental, Better Humans, The Startup, The Ascent, Mind Cafe | https://www.zacharywalston.com/subscribe

In Fitness And In Health

A fast-growing health and fitness community dedicated to sharing knowledge, lessons, and suggestions to living happier, healthier lives.

Zachary Walston

Written by

A physical therapist tackling health misinformation | Elemental, Better Humans, The Startup, The Ascent, Mind Cafe | https://www.zacharywalston.com/subscribe

In Fitness And In Health

A fast-growing health and fitness community dedicated to sharing knowledge, lessons, and suggestions to living happier, healthier lives.

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