The Top 3 Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain, who doesn't know that, right? It's an extremely common complaint from people who spend a long time sitting. Physical evolution is a slow process, and humans haven't been sitting all day long enough to adapt to it. Our minds may have built civilization, but our bodies are basically indistinguishable from a hunter-gatherer caveman who spent all his time moving around.

What Is the Lower Back, Anyway? 

The lower back, or the lumbar area, is the portion of the back between the chest and the pelvis. The lumbar vertebrae that form the spine in this area are more massive than the thoracic (chest) and cervical (neck) vertebrae above them: Gravity points downwards, so the load gets bigger the lower down a body part is.

For example, if a slight 60 kg (130 lb) person bends down to lift a 10 kg (22 lb) weight, like a six-pack of soda, the compression force on the spinal disc at the apex of the curve is over 7 kN, or the equivalent of 700 kg force (about 1,600 lbf). No matter how tough your spine is, it won't thank you for that. That's why trainers always say to lift with the knees.

Let's start off with a video showing the proper way to do a squat.

Proper Squat Technique

Most Cases of Lower Back Pain Are Due to One of These Three Causes

Cause 1: Mechanical problem

Cause 2: Pain transferred from organs

Cause 3: Somatic manifestation of long-term mental stress

As you might have surmised, a good chair and exercises will only help against cause no. 1. If your lower back pain is caused by organ adhesions in the abdominal cavity (cause no. 2) or long-term mental discomfort (cause no. 3), there's only so much a chair can do for you. 

But if your lumbar pain is mechanical in origin, a quality chair and the proper exercise regimen are the cornerstones of treatment, and can bring dramatic improvement.

What Exactly Are These ‘Mechanical Causes’ of Lower Back Pain?

“Mechanical causes” is shorthand for problems caused by tissue damage directly at the site of the pain in the lower back. Something down there is being pulled or compressed too far, or it's being starved of blood, or it might be blocked. Any of these usually cause pain. There are any number of specific anatomical structures that may hurt and mechanisms through which they do so. Not all of them can be directly influenced, but what you're sitting on and what shape your muscles are in are two things you can change.

Most sore back owners' musculoskeletal systems are in a condition where the erector muscles lining the spine are doing overtime, while the abs that should assist in front are on an indefinite hiatus. After some time of this, your back just will start to hurt, because there simply isn't enough reserve endurance to keep it up.

Let's now take a more detailed look at what can be done about this. There are any number of exercises you could do, but for starters, let's learn what I think are the top three.

The Top 3 Lumbar Spine Exercises

EXERCISE 1: Quick relief for the lower back – 3D pelvic motion on an Adaptic therapeutic chair

Feeling stiff in the lower back? What started as mild discomfort has become ever-increasing pain? If so, it's high time to give this area the blood flow and exercise it's been lacking. The best results tend to be achieved with complex motions that engage many directions at once. In the video tutorial database here at Adaptic, the ideal candidate is the “3D Pelvic Motion on an Adaptic Chair”. In this case, it's the pelvis that does the moving, but it will be the lower back that feels the relief.

As noted, this is a complex exercise, so it may take you some time to learn. If you're struggling, look at exercises no. 2, 3 and 4 on our YouTube channel, which will help you master the proper moves.

  • Exercise 2 – Active Pelvic Tilt Forward and Back on a Chair
  • Exercise 3 – Sideways Pelvic Tilt on an Adaptic Chair
  • Exercise 4 – Pelvic Rotation on an Adaptic Chair

3D pelvic motion rules!

EXERCISE 2: Acute lower back pain relief – leaning chest forward and back on a chair

Static loads aren't good for the spine. In an average day, we lean forward many more times than we lean back. There are very few opportunities to lean back in normal daily activities, so it helps to add some on purpose. In general, the body adapts to some degree to the functions it actually performs – so if you never lean back, it will adapt to a slightly hunched posture, and some anatomical structures will shrink. These shortened structures then really hurt when you try to straighten up properly.

An elegant solution to this problem is a simple exercise where you lean your chest forward and back while sitting on a chair, such as at your desk at work. Even though it says “chest” in the title, the motion is actually done with the spine.

Demonstration of proper technique for leaning forward and back on a chair:

Attention – With any exercise, always keep in mind: If the exercise is making you pain worse, your body isn't fit to do it at the moment. You should exercise to the extent your body will let you, not force yourself. The pain is your body trying to tell you it isn't liking what you're doing very much, and it's best to listen.

EXERCISE 3: Lower back pain relief – hamstring stretching

Lower back pain can originate from any number of places on the muscle chain at the back of the body, including the back of the thigh, the deep buttock muscles, and the spinal erectors. You can stretch them with this exercise, which is done standing up and leaning on a chair. Check our video tutorial for the proper technique.

Proper technique for the hamstring stretching exercise:

All video tutorials are performed by locomotion specialist Mgr. David Krumpolc, using the Adaptic EVORA S therapeutic chair.

What's Next?

We've reviewed some exercises, which can serve as a sort of first aid. However, you shouldn't rest on your laurels, and keep working that sore back. Try each exercise and see how you like it. Pick the ones that seem to work best for you and stick with them. It's also useful to change your exercise regimen from time to time, to avoid undesirable muscle adaptations to a particular exercise pose.

The last point we'll cover is prevention.

How Do I Prevent Lower Back Pain? 

Back pain is always a multifactor problem; that is, it's triggered by a combination of several underlying causes. Leaving aside anatomical defects of the spine such as may arise from injury or congenitally, the other leading causes are:

  • Overall low physical activity level, leading to low muscle power and endurance, as well as poor blood flow.
  • Dehydration. Soft tissue in the back (and elsewhere) is mostly water, which needs to be replenished. Dehydrated tissues tend to hurt.
  • Cold. Including the sudden chill of AC.
  • Repetitive one-sided motions. Often occur in the workplace, such as frequently leaning for or toward something next to your desk.
  • Not moving right. When you turn while seated, don't twist at the torso. Turn the whole torso, so that the pelvis remains in line with the shoulders.
  • Poor nutrition. If you expect your muscles to work properly, they need to be fed properly.

Further Reading

You can read more about lower back problems in our other article, Lower Back: Why It Hurts and What Exercises Relieve It.

This article covered lower back pain. If it's the neck that's giving you problems, we can help you there, too. Read our neck pain article.

Have any questions? Ask them at our free, expert-staffed online helpdesk.

Mgr. Kateřina Honová, DiS.

I am a licensed physical therapist with more than 16 years in the field. I specialize in disorders of musculoskeletal function, traumatology, and orthopaedics. I am certified in Professor Kolář's Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization technique, as a therapeutic physical education instructor by the Czech Ministry of Education, and as a tutor for AKRIS (the accredited educational programs of the Czech Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs).

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