Five-Minute Exercises for Back Strength
Exercises that build a strong core—the muscles of your abdomen, back, hips, and pelvis—are key to helping avoid and potentially relieving lower back pain. Your core is where movement begins. It needs to be strong to stabilize the spine and pelvis, specifically to support you as you move. Strengthening your core is as simple as doing this basic five-minute routine once a day on most days.
Warm-up: 30-Second Stretch
Start your routine with 30 seconds of a simple warm-up stretch. Stand upright, feet slightly apart, look straight ahead, and stretch your arms up as high as you can. Hold for 30 seconds. You can substitute a dynamic warm-up instead: jump rope or run in place. This gets your heart pumping and your central nervous system ready for activity.
Minute 1: Abdominal Brace
The abdominal brace activates all the contracting muscles in the abdominal wall, including the nearby obliques and rectus muscles. It strengthens the connection between the global muscles of the abdomen and the deep local muscles of the lower back, especially the back extensors and the quadratus lumborum (the deepest abdominal muscles). This helps restore the balance between them and improves spinal stability. The goal is 360 degrees of muscular contraction—imagine your core muscles as a belt you’re tightening.
To do an abdominal brace, stand upright, feet slightly apart, and suck in your stomach, as if you were about to get punched. You should feel your abdominal muscles tighten. Hold the brace for 30 seconds, then relax for 10. Repeat for at least 20 seconds.
You’ll know you’re doing the abdominal brace correctly if you poke your extended fingertips right into your side below your ribs and feel the tightened muscles. You should feel the muscles move under your fingertips as you brace and then relax.
Minute 2: The Plank
In this exercise, you’re trying to imitate a plank of wood by holding your body stiff and straight. Start by getting into the push-up position, with your arms extended under your shoulders, your legs fully extended, and toes bent. Bend your arms 90 degrees and rest your weight on your forearms. Look down at your hands and keep a neutral spine, brace your core muscles, and contract your gluteus (butt) muscles. To avoid rounding your scapular muscles, imagine pulling your shoulder blades into your back pocket. Your body should be perfectly straight from your shoulders to your ankles, all working as one unit. Hold for 30 seconds, relax for 10 seconds, and hold again for at least 20 seconds. The plank is great for the core, because it works all the major muscle groups, including the transverse abdominus, the rectus abdominus, the internal and external oblique muscles, the glutes, and all the muscles of the scapula area.
Bonus: Planks not only strengthen your lower back muscles and abs, they also strengthen your upper arms and shoulders, thighs, and butt.
Minute 3: Side Plank
Also called the side bridge, the side plank is particularly good for strengthening the stabilizing muscles of the lower back, particularly the quadratus lumborum, lateral obliques, and transverse abdominus muscles. Start by lying on your side. Place your top leg in front of your bottom leg (the heel of your top foot should touch the toe of the bottom foot). Raise your body using the down-side shoulder and elbow. Cap the opposite shoulder with your free hand. Hold for at least 20 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
If side planks hurt your shoulders, try an alternative approach that elevates your legs instead of your upper body. Start by lying on your side with your arm flat underneath you. Place your feet on a box or low stool about 12 inches high, with your top leg in front of your bottom leg (the heel of your top foot should touch the toe of the bottom foot). Brace your core and raise your hips. Hold for at least 20 seconds. Switch sides and repeat. Studies show that this position provides more muscle activation than side planks using your shoulders.
Minute 4: Bird Dog
This exercise is great for training the back extensor muscles, including the longissimus, iliocostalis, and multifidii. Start on your hands and knees (quadruped position). Look down at your hands and keep a neutral spine. Raise and extend the opposite arm and leg simultaneously, like a dog pointing to where the bird is. If you have trouble balancing, first raise one leg and stabilize, and then raise the opposite arm. Hold for eight seconds, return to the quadruped position, and repeat twice more. Switch arms and legs and repeat three times. For some variation, move your arms to the left or right. If you stretch your toes out, you’ll get more muscle activation in your hamstrings. If you dorsiflex them downward (toe toward shin), you’ll get more activation in your glute.
Cool-Down: 30-Second Stretch
To end your back workout, do a hip flexor stretch, Spiderman style. To do this stretch, get into the push-up position. Look straight ahead and step your left leg forward until it is positioned outside and next to your left hand—you’ll look like Spiderman all set to leap onto the side of a building. Move your hips forward into a stretch and hold for 10 seconds. Relax for 10 seconds, then repeat for another 10 seconds. Switch sides and repeat.
Dr. Silverman is a paid consultant and guest writer for Metagenics.