Top Low Back Strengthening Exercises for Lower Back Pain Relief

Low back pain is one of the most common ailments most will experience at least once in their lifetime. Recurrent or chronic back pain is something that can occur if back pain is not addressed and treated properly in the first place.

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, “Approximately 60% to 80% of the population will experience an episode of low back pain during their lifetime.”

Causes of Lower Back Pain

young lady providing support to old man having lower back pain

Low back pain can occur for many reasons. Below is a list of some of the most common causes of low back pain:

  • Injury or trauma

  • Tight muscles

  • Arthritis

  • Spinal stenosis

  • Herniated disc

  • Poor posture

  • Not maintaining a healthy weight

If you experience leg pain with your low back pain, particularly severe pain that radiates down the leg, this typically means a nerve is also involved. Sometimes the nerve roots can become entrapped, or get pinched, between the spinal joints themselves or under the soft tissues they run through.

Treatment of Lower Back Pain

Back pain, acute or chronic, can become very debilitating if not treated correctly and timely. Different pain management strategies, depending on severity and onset of pain, may include one or more of the following:

  • Pain relievers

  • Bed rest

  • Nonsteroidal anti inflammatory drugs

  • Cold therapy

  • Breathing exercises

  • Heating pad

  • Muscle relaxants

  • Over the counter medications

  • Relaxation techniques

  • Physical therapy

  • Exercise

In more severe cases, especially if there is concern about the quality and safety of the spinal cord, neurological surgeons may get involved to discuss spine surgery.


This, again, is normally necessary in more emergent situations or if other nonsurgical treatments, such as physical therapy, have failed and severe, debilitating back pain persists.

Exercise for Lower Back Pain Relief

exercise for lower back pain relief

Both stretching and strengthening exercises for low back pain can be a great help not only to manage active lower back pain, but also for low back pain prevention.

Now, the question is what exercise is best for strengthening the lower back?

Honestly, there’s no single best exercise, but actually quite a few that are very beneficial.

The following exercises being discussed are best to perform once out of the acute or early stage of low back pain. In the acute stage of healing, rest and pain management are the biggest priority.


The reason for this is to avoid further aggravation or worsening of the injury, increasing inflammation and, therefore, worsening pain.

Targeted Muscle Groups

What muscle groups should be targeted to help achieve lower back pain relief?

Many muscle groups play a role in providing support and stability in the low back. Some of these muscle groups you may be surprised to hear are involved with supporting the back, as they are not directly located in the back anatomically.


Even so, weakness in these muscles can make pain worse.

For this reason, it’s important to know which muscle to key in on in order to relieve lower back pain.

We’ll be focusing on the glutes, abdominal muscles, and the spinal multifidi.

Exercises to Strengthen Spinal Multifidi for Lower Back Pain

exercises to strengthen spinal multifidi for lower back pain

Multifidi are deep spinal stabilizers that have direct attachments to the spine. These muscles run the entire length of the spine into the pelvis.

Research has shown that the lumbar multifidi are vital to stabilize the spine and maintain correct alignment. When lower back pain occurs, it has been found that these muscles begin to struggle and don’t functional properly.


This is considered a natural response to pain, especially if pain persists, such as in cases of chronic low back pain.

Even when lower back pain resolves, the multifidi may not automatically return to their prior working state. They may need rehab and re-education in how to function properly to support the spine.

The following exercises will help to target the lumbar multifidi, but because of their versatility you will also be targeting some additional muscle groups.

We’ll begin with the most basic low back strengthening exercise, and each one following will be a gradual progression in level of difficulty.

Prone Leg Extension

prone leg
coach todd showing prone leg extension exercise for low back pain
  • Starting position: Lay on your stomach (can lay on the bed, couch or floor), preferably with a pillow underneath and around the area of your belly button. You can have your arms overhead to rest your forehead on them.

  • Slowly lift one leg about 2-3 inches from the surface. Hold for about 2 seconds, then return to your starting position.

  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions, for 2-3 sets. Perform on the opposite leg as well.

  • You can practice all repetitions on one leg, then switch to the other side, or can alternate legs.

  • Make sure the leg remains straight as you’re lifting it up and down, without bending the knee. The movement should come from the hip.

Quadruped Leg Extension

quaduped leg extension
coach todd showing quadruped leg extension exercise on the bed step 2
  • Starting position: Begin on your hands and knees (can try this on the bed, couch or floor).

  • Slowly kick one up and back until it is completely straight and in line with your torso. Hold for 2 seconds.

  • Bring the leg back in and return to your starting position.

  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets. Perform on the opposite leg also.

  • You can practice all repetitions on one leg, then switch to the other side, or can alternate legs.

  • Be sure to keep the core muscles activated during this by bracing the stomach, holding a bit of tension around the area of the belly button.

If you’re uncomfortable on the hands and knees, you may want to stick with the previous exercise, prone leg extension, for comfort.

Bird Dog

coach todd showing bird dog exercise that helps relieve low back pain on the floor step 1
coach todd showing bird dog exercise that helps relieve low back pain on the floor step 2
  • Starting position: This exercise also begins on the hands and knees (can use the bed, couch, or floor).

  • You’ll again be kicking one leg directly behind you to the level of your torso. The difference this time is you’ll also be raising the opposite arm forward and up at the exact same time. This will be a balance challenge!

  • Hold this position for about 2 seconds, then return to your hands and knees.

  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets. Perform with the opposite arm and leg combination.

  • You can practice all repetitions on one side, then switch to the other, or can alternate.

Core Strengthening Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Ah the core muscles…

While we all may want that pretty 6-pack, that’s just your superficial core muscles showing off. These core strengthening exercises for lower back pain can help you out there but are really aiming to target your deep abdominal muscles, such as your transverse abdominis.

The deep core helps to create an internal corset around the spine for best support and stabilization. As a result, addressing core muscle weakness is important to provide back pain relief and prevent future back pain occurrence.

Similar to the multifidi exercises, the core exercises listed will progress in level of difficulty.

Supine March

coach todd showing supine march exercise step 1
coach todd showing supine march exercise step 2
  • Starting position: Laying flat on your back (can be on your bed, couch or floor), with the knees bent and feet flat on the surface.

  • To activate your transverse abdominis, try to pull the belly button down towards the surface, gently flattening the back at the same time. This will help to brace the core.

  • While keeping this braced core (don’t forget to breathe!), lift one knee towards your chest, like a march, then lower back down to the surface.

  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets. Perform on the opposite leg.

  • You can perform all repetitions on one side then switch to the other or perform alternatingly between the legs.

Supine Kickout

supne kickout step 1
supne kickout step 2
  • Starting position: Similar to the supine march, begin on the back (can be on bed, couch or floor), with the knees bent and feet flat on the surface.

  • Bracing the core, slowly kick one leg out in front of you. Attempt to kick the leg completely straight, but still remain slightly above and off the surface.

  • Return to your starting position.

  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets. Perform on the opposite leg.

  • You can perform all repetitions on one side then switch to the other or perform alternatingly between the legs.

Tip: If you feel the low back arching during this exercise, it means you’re not fully engaging your core.

Plank

plank step 1
plank step 2

Planks are a common and well-known exercise to help strengthen the core, which as we now know will also help to strengthen the lower back and provide back pain relief.

Planks are a more advanced exercise and can be done in a variety of ways. Today, we’ll focus on a simple forward plank.

  • Starting position: Begin on the hands and knees. While you can try this on your bed or couch, if not comfortable on the floor, it will be more challenging on softer surfaces.

  • Stretch the legs back until you’re in a full plank position. Your body should be in a straight line.

  • If you’re a beginner with planks, try to hold for at least 10 seconds. As you become stronger, try to gradually increase your time up to 30 seconds.

  • Be sure to engage the core, so that the low back doesn’t sway or arch.

Alternative positioning:

An alternative, but more challenging forward plank position, will be performed on the elbows versus the hands. While this is a little easier on the wrists, it will be more difficult for the core to hold.

plank alternative for lower back pain

If you’re having a hard time doing a forward plank on the hands because of wrist pain, but practicing on the elbows is too challenging, you can always modify the elbow plank by resting the knees down on the surface.

plank alternative for lower back pain

Glute Strengthening Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Believe it or not, glute weakness has been correlated to low back pain or risk for lower back injury.

There are 3 glute muscles: gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and gluteus maximus.

By targeting these muscles you’ll not only help reduce pain, but also reduce incidence of low back pain in the first place.

Similar to the above exercises, the ones listed below will begin with the most basic exercise and progress in level of difficulty.

Bridge

back bridge exercise step 1
back bridge exercise step 2
  • Starting position: Lay on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the surface (can perform on your bed, couch or floor).

  • Slowly lift the hips off the surface. Hold anywhere between 2-5 seconds, then return to your starting position.

  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets.

Tip: Only lift the hips as high as your back can tolerate. If you begin having more pain, don’t lift the hips as high. You can also place a bit of pressure down through the feet while doing the bridge to take some pressure off the back.

Standing Leg Extension with Resistance Band

standing leg extension with resistance band step 1
standing leg extension with resistance band step 2
  • Starting position: Tie a resistance band (light, medium or heavy) around the ankles and stand in front of a sturdy surface, such as your countertop.

  • Kick one leg back, while keeping the knee on the kicking leg straight. Be sure to stand tall on your supporting leg.

  • Return to your starting position.

  • Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets. Perform on the opposite leg.

Tip: If your back pain increases, try to lower the height of your kick. You can also adjust the amount of resistance to make the exercise more challenging or easier.

Lateral Walk with Resistance Band

lateral walk with resistance band step 1
lateral walk with resistance band step 2
  • Starting position: Tie a resistance band (light, medium or heavy) around the thighs with the feet positioned side by side, and stand in front of a sturdy surface, such as your countertop. Begin on one end of the countertop.

  • Begin side walking across the length of the countertop, then return the opposite way. Make sure to avoid dragging the feet.

  • Practice 4-5 laps back and forth along the countertop.

Tip: To make this exercise more difficult, you can use a heavier resistance band and/or tie the band around the ankles versus the thighs.

Additional Exercises to Consider

additional exercises to consider for back pain

While strengthen muscles is important for treating and preventing low back pain, you will also find benefits from stretching the back as well. If in physical therapy, your physical therapist will likely also prescribe back stretches for you to practice at home.

Stretches for Lower Back Pain

We’ll touch on a few basic stretches for the back that will nicely compliment the strengthening exercises.

While stretches can be performed in a variety of locations and positions, let’s discuss easy stretches you can do while sitting in a chair or while lying in your bed, as these can be very convenient and easy to do.

Chair stretches for lower back pain:

Forward flexion stretch

coach todd showing forward flexion stretch step 1
coach todd showing forward flexion stretch step 2
  • Starting position: While seated in a comfortable chair, slowly bend forward, rounding the spine as far as is tolerable. Allow your head and neck to relax forward too.

  • Hold for up to 30 seconds, if able, then return to sitting upright. Repeat another set.

Tip: Only bend forward as far as is tolerable for the back. Never push into worsening pain.

Extension stretch:

extension stretch step 1 | feel good life
extension stretch step 2
  • Starting position: Using a chair with a back, place your hands behind your head to cradle it and your back positioned against the chair back.

  • Slowly lean back, extending your back while looking up towards the ceiling. Make sure not to lean to far back so you don’t tip the chair!

  • Hold the stretch for up to 5 seconds, then return to your starting position. Repeat 10x.

Bonus: While a great stretch for the low back, you’ll probably also find these a helpful stretch for the middle back.

Lower back stretches in bed:

Knee to chest

knee to chest stretch
single knee to chest stretch
  • Starting position: Laying on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the bed. This is a nice, decompressed position for the spine to begin in.

  • Reach the hands behind the thigh of one leg and slowly pull the leg so that your knee moves in towards the chest. Keep the intensity of the stretch gentle and the leg as relaxed as possible.

  • Hold at least 30 seconds or up to 1 minute. Repeat on the other side.

Tip: You can advance this stretch by pulling both legs into the chest at the same time.

Active hamstring stretch

supine hamstring stretch step 1
supine hamstring stretch step 2
  • Starting position: Laying on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the bed.

  • Reach the hands behind the thigh of one leg, similar to the knee to chest stretch, and pull the leg towards the chest again. This time though, only pull the leg so far that the knee is pointing up towards the ceiling.

  • Slow straighten the knee, kicking the foot up towards the ceiling. Hold 5 seconds, then bend the knee to a relaxed position. Repeat 10x, then perform on the other side.

Tip: Progress the stretch by trying to hold for longer durations. As you do so, you won’t need to repeat the stretch as many times. For example, hold for 30 seconds and repeat a second time before switching legs.

3 Easy Low Back Strengthening Exercise Progressions

Here are three low back strengthening exercise progressions that you can do to help relieve back pain, restore strength, and enhance athletic performance. Some of these exercises could get you out of the pain you’re currently in, or at least get you on track to where you want to be.

Consistency with a Home Program

Lower back strengthening exercises are meant to help prevent pain, relieve pain and manage chronic pain symptoms overall. By doing so, you will be able to move much more comfortably and won’t be limited by back pain.

Keep in mind there are many available back pain treatments. We’ve mentioned various options and pain remedies to help lessen pain, but never underestimate the value of a consistent home exercise program.

Keeping your back strong and healthy via exercise is one of the best ways to help the healing process, relieve back pain, and promote a long-term healthy lifestyle.

FAQ:

How many times per week should I be practicing lower back strengthening exercises?

Do your best to practice your lower back strengthening exercises 2-3x/week.

This is a recommendation for a regular home exercise program. If you are in the process of receiving physical therapy for your low back pain, your physical therapist may have alternative recommendations, depending on your symptoms.

What’s the best position to sleep in for back pain?

Normally, try to position yourself on your back or side. Avoid stomach sleeping if you can.

While on your back, try positioning a couple of pillows under the knees to decompress the spine. On your side, try to sleep with a pillow between the knees to keep the spine, pelvis and hips neutral.

How long should I hold stretches for the low back?

It’s recommended to try to hold a stretch for any muscle group for a sum total of 1 minute.

This can be one single stretch for a duration of 1 minute, or it can be broken up into shorter durations practiced multiple times, such as 20 second stretches repeated 4x. Sometimes the more intense a stretch is, it may be more tolerable to begin with shorter hold times.

Is it safe to use gym equipment if I’m having low back pain?

It depends.

If you’re having low back pain that’s not going away (particularly acute low back pain), it’s best to consult with your medical doctor and physical therapist before trying your workout in the gym, especially if this workout involves weight training.

When your back pain has improved and is more stable, it can be safe to gradual resume a gym workout. Consulting with your physical therapist and medical doctor for additional guidance is recommended to best understand which gym equipment is recommended or not recommended to use.

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