3 Worst Exercises For Low Back Pain You Must Avoid

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Most people with lower back pain know that they need to do exercises and stretches to help reduce the pain and support recovery, however, there are common exercises and stretches that are recommended for back pain all the time. Unfortunately many of these exercises and stretches can make things worse, or have little to no effect on actually increasing the strength of your lower back to support good healing. Some of the movements even undermine the healing process. Today we’ll talk about what these common exercises and stretches are, so you can avoid them. We’ll also cover some simple alternatives that we know work, based on our work with thousands of patients and members struggling with low back pain. 

Why do these exercises always get recommended

There is one simple reason that these exercises are commonly recommended on the internet and by health care professionals. In a simplified view, it is a matter of the way in which they see your low back. Too many view it as a low back, made up primarily of muscles and soft tissues, and as an afterthought, there is a little spine in there. Instead of viewing things this way we should view it as a spine, the vital load bearing structure, that is then supported by a mesh of muscles and other soft tissues.

Simply put, there is too much of a back first approach and not enough of a spine first approach.

If we can make this switch, we start to see why these stretches do not work to resolve low back pain, and why in some cases they make the injury in your lower back worse!

Common low back exercises you should be avoiding

For each of these exercises we’ll cover what they are, a critique of the exercise and offer some recommendations for things to do instead. The goal is for you to have a good understanding as to why these exercises might feel nice, but actually be making the issue worse, and feel confident to focus on a different “spine-first” approach instead. By the end you’ll be well on your way to recovering from back pain. At the end of this we’ve also got a great resource you can follow along with to help restore your back health with the right exercises too!

Pelvic tucks & pelvic tilts for lower back pain

These simple exercises are done lying on your back with knees bent, you will then rock your pelvis backwards so as to flatten your lower back to the floor, in doing so the low back muscles and ligaments are stretched and you then engage your core muscles in this position. This is commonly part of other exercises, the first movement you will do, for example, before doing a bridge, or used as an exercise in its own right.

Why pelvic tucks are a bad movement:

The simple reason that these are bad is because it is teaching you a movement to engage your core that is bad if you’re standing up. Therefore you find that people who learn this are only able to engage their core when standing by doing a pelvic tuck. In the process of doing this, we are putting more pressure on the L4, L5 and L5, S1 discs of the spine. We are also stretching the back part of these discs and spinal ligaments by extension. This puts them “out of balance” and is not an optimal load bearing position, especially for someone with a low back injury.

What should you do instead of pelvic tucks?

Engaging your core is a vital skill that all with lower back pain need to learn, those without back pain should learn it too! We talk about the candle drill for core engagement as a quick hack to help you safely learn to engage your core muscles. But there are other drills that help you do this well. All of them involve engaging the core with a spine that does not move!

Step-by-step alternative:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent
  • Roll a small hand towel into a tube
  • Place the towel under your lower back for support of the natural curve
  • Take a big belly breath in
  • Breath out fully without moving your spine
  • Continue to breath out as if someone were squeezing you by the the tummy
  • Hold that position for a second or so then repeat

Pelvic tuck alternative explained

This exercise is a great way to engage the core. The towel in your lower back helps act as a sensor that tells you if your back (spine) moved or not; it should not move. As you squeeze the last bit of air out of your lungs you’ll feel that your core is forced to help. This is a hack because your deep core muscles are “accessory muscles of respiration” this means they help you empty the last 5-10% of air from your lungs. Commonly this would only happen during exercise but here we’re tricking the body into using these muscles that so many struggle to feel. What’s more, this exercise involves no spinal movement at all. You’re learning to provide stability to your spine in a position that it is strongest, so as you get better at this exercise, you’ll be able to practice standing, making for a more protected spine.

Long term this skill of engaging your core properly will be vital as you carry out other more advanced exercises to restore your lower back health.

Knee hug stretch for lower back pain relief

This exercise is a favorite, and more or less all of the tens of thousands of patients and members we’ve helped over the years have been recommended this one for their back pain. It involves you lying on your back and bringing your knees to your chest. Some people hug the knees and pump, others just hold them for time to get a deep stretch into those back muscles, and it does feel nice!

Why knee hugs are stopping your back pain from getting better

As surprised as you might be, these are probably one of the worst exercises for back pain. The reason for this is that it feels so good at the time, for most, so you end up doing it so often every day. The problem is that, similar to the pelvic tuck, only to a greater degree, you’re forcing the discs together on the front, this stretches the back of the discs and the ligaments that support good back health. These ligaments and discs, especially at the L4, L5 and L5, S1 level of the spine are commonly injured in a minor or major way, and so instead of allowing them to heal and tighten back up again, like a frayed rope that continues to be pulled apart, the fraying only continues to worsen. 

What should you do instead of knee hugs?

The issue with most cases of lower back pain is that there is muscle tension that feels “tight” to remedy this safely there are two options. Firstly, you can work on some safe stretches to the hip muscles such as those in this 10 minute hip mobility flow. Instead of stretching the lower back and squashing the discs more and the ligaments of the spine, you can stretch the muscles of the hips safely, without involving the lower back. This has two benefits, firstly you do not aggravate the lower back. Secondarily, you provide more mobility to the hips which helps ease pressure on the lower back afterwards as the hips move more freely.

The second option you can have works in similar ways and that is to use a vibration or massage gun to safely improve circulation to the muscles, as well as provide instant relief of tension. We recently shot a video you can follow along with on the website which you can check out here if you have one of these massage guns. This 10 minute self massage routine for back pain is easy to do and has the same benefits as the previous suggestion, so give it a go when you get the chance.

Swimming to relieve lower back pain

When you have a lower back injury, it is nearly always the case that load makes the pain worse, this is because you’re squashing the section of your spine that is injured. Therefore it is suggested that going to the swimming pool to reduce the pressure on your spine is a great way to get some exercise and movement. This is true, in the swimming pool your back pain will often be less intense as the pressure comes off the spine, you’re also more free to move slowly through the water.

Why swimming might not be the best exercise for your lower back pain

There are a couple of logistical issues that one should be aware of when it comes to swimming for lower back pain, and this is not the swimming itself, but the process of doing swimming. You’re generally walking around on a slippery surface, getting in and out of a tight swimming costume, and getting changed in a confined cubicle in many cases. All of these factors are simply more likely to be aggravating factors that undermine the momentary relief that the “low gravity” environment in the swimming pool offers. This leads us to the second downside, is that swimming is not a means to recover from back pain, it does not contribute to the rehabilitative approach. Swimming does not make you stronger, and it certainly does not build strength in your lower back, in fact the opposite is the case. Your body and spine requires a safely applied load in order to understand how it is to rebuild strength and recover. Failure to do this means that you might find your back pain settles down but flares up regularly at the slightest strain or movement.

What you should do instead of swimming to fix your lower back pain

As discussed previously, although swimming might offer a moment where you can relax, it is actually the careful but consistent application of tolerable resistances and load to the spine that gives it direction to build strength again over time. This is how we help our lower back injury heal and then rebuild strength over time.

Naturally it can be nerve wracking to begin strengthening exercises, this is why we put together a free 80 minute workshop that you can follow along with, based on the full Back In Shape Program, this live video including demonstrations, will help you with simple exercises to build strength in a safe and progressive way, check out the full back health masterclass when you’ve finished here and save the page for future reference.

Exercise safely to recover from lower back pain

Ultimately a spine-first approach to recovery from lower back pain is important, focusing on exercises that do not undermine the healing process, but direct it, towards building strength into your spine. This is the essence of the approach we share with members of the Back In Shape Program. Carefully teaching the principles of correct core engagement supporting a neutral spine, followed by building the spine’s load bearing ability back up again. This is done using specific exercises that everyone does, and can do, regardless of age, or condition. To learn more about this click below or the link above to find out more about how membership can help you get out of pain, restore your spine health and get you back to doing the things you love. 

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