Reviewed by Cynthia Haines, MD

Exercise that strengthens muscles all over your body may be just what the doctor ordered for your back pain.

When your back hurts, all you probably want to do is curl up in bed or on the couch and rest, waiting for the pain to end and the healing to proceed. But if you want to help your back muscles get stronger and minimize your back pain, one of the most effective treatments may also be one of the most surprising — exercise. Several studies have found that doing yoga or stretching can help relieve back soreness and even help you cut back on the amount of pain medication you’re taking for back problems.

But you don’t need to sign up for a class. A simple at-home fitness routine can go a long way toward strengthening your back muscles and reducing pain and pressure.

Before You Start a Core Routine

How do you know where to start, and what exercises are safe? It doesn’t take a back specialist to tell you that although exercise can be great for your back, certain movements can make your back pain worse.

“Exercises for back pain will vary, depending on the cause of the problem,” says Nancy Talbott, PhD, associate professor of rehabilitation sciences at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Allied Health Sciences. “Individuals who experience back pain should be sure that they have had an examination by a health care professional to rule out serious causes of the back pain and to more accurately assess the exercises that would be appropriate.”

How to Create a Core Routine
It’s important to develop an exercise routine that you can do one to three times a week for about 30 minutes at a time. These basic exercises and movements should help strengthen your core muscles (the ones that help stabilize your back) and ease or even prevent back pain:

  • Stretching. Lie flat on your back, bend your knees, and lift one knee up to your chest, pushing your lower back down toward the floor. Hold this position for 5 seconds, relax, and then repeat with the other leg. Do 10 repetitions for each leg, alternating legs with each repetition. Another good stretching exercise to try: Lie on your stomach with your hands at your shoulders and your palms flat against the floor, push your upper body up, hold for 5 seconds, and relax your lower back. Do 10 repetitions.
  • Low-impact aerobic exercise. Exercise in general is great for your body and your back, but low-impact aerobic exercises are the best for boosting overall health without causing damage to your back. So which exercises are best? “Walking, swimming and bicycle riding are helpful aerobic training exercises,” according to William Shaffer, MD, medical director at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Dr. Shaffer also recommends flexion exercises for back pain patients who have arthritis. (Flexion exercises are those that involve bending forward, strengthening your muscles and reducing pressure on the nerves in your back.)
  • Isometrics. “As a general recommendation, exercises that protect the lower back begin with ‘neutral spine’ positions and isometric muscle contractions,” says Thomas J. Herrmann, EdD, PT, a physical therapist and associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Allied Health Sciences. Isometric muscle contractions occur when muscles contract (develop tension) but stay the same length — like pushing up against a wall or holding an abdominal crunch. “If one were to stand with good posture, the lumbar spine and low back would be in, or at least near, its neutral position,” Herrmann says. “If one were to begin with isometric abdominal and low back exercises while in this neutral position, and develop good control over these muscles, it is possible to ‘teach’ these muscles to control the low back position during larger, more risky activities.”

It’s important to make sure that the exercises you do are productive and are actually helping to heal your back, not hurt it. When in doubt, work with a physical therapist to develop a tailored core exercise routine that can help relieve back pain.