The 7 Best Workout Routine Hacks for Back Pain

Be Strategic About Your Workout Routine

Woman in childs pose
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Workout Routine Strategy

Exercise may not seem very palatable when you have back problems.  Many people complain that it's just too painful, even at the therapeutic levels.  If this is true for you, you may benefit from a dose of workout routine strategy.  Here's one of my best tips:

If your chronic back pain gets in the way of taking on a full routine, consider limiting yourself to exercises in positions that give you the most support.  Most of the time these exercises involve moving limbs while either lying on your back (called supine) or in the all 4s position. You can include a standing upward stretching, too.  During this initial phase, focus on core strengthening as best as you can.  The following ab exercises may help:

Once your core is stronger and you've gotten comfortable with basic movements, slowly add forward bending, arching, side bending and twisting, as tolerated, and in small doses. 

To learn other workout hacks that can benefit your back, slide on.

Aerobic Exercise - A Must Even with Back Problems

A pair of legs running on a treadmill.
Regular aerobic exercise may help keep back pain away. Hero Images/Hero Images/Getty Images

Aerobic Exercise and Back Pain

Having back pain is no excuse for skipping cardio.

Keeping up with aerobic exercise - i.e., a daily walk, swimming, even yard work, may help you reduce your pain, improve your mood and increase your ability to function physically. Not only that but it can help you keep your weight down, which may decrease the overall load on your joints. For this reason, it may make a great workout hack for your back. 

The CDC says aerobic activity is anything that gets you breathing harder and makes your heart beat faster for a continuous period of time.  They recommend spending about 150 minutes per week doing moderate intensity aerobic exercise.  A moderate level of intensity is safe for most people, the CDC says.

And no, light housework doesn’t count.  Things that do count include:

  • Walking briskly with an upright spine (which may help your back for other reasons, as well.)
  • Swimming (as mentioned above.)
  • Water exercise using a flotation belt.  I personally like this type of exercise because it takes the load off your joints, making movement much easier.  When you wear a flotation belt you can exercise in the deep end.  Otherwise, you can water walk in the shallow end with reduced, but not eliminated, load on your joints.
  • Cycling, outside or on a stationary bike.
  • Elliptical machine.
  • And similar activities.

Related:  Try a Water Exercise Routine


Meng XG1, Yue SW. Efficacy of aerobic exercise for treatment of chronic low back pain: a meta-analysis. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2015 May;94(5):358-65. doi: 10.1097/PHM.0000000000000188.

The Benefits of Physical Activity. Physical Activity and Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dividion of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity website. Last Updated: June 2015. Accessed: Aug 2015.

Do Hip Exercises

Woman doing the bridge exercise.
Stretch your quadriceps muscles with a hip bridge. Dmyr_Z

Hip Exercises-Good for Your Back?

A common assumption many people make is that a tight or painful back needs stretching.  And it often does -  back stretches can be very relieving at times.  As well, many people who complain about weak backs or bad posture seek to remedy this by strengthening the area directly. Again - a workable solution - at times.

But don't ignore your hips.  These key muscle groups play a big role in back stability, spinal flexibility and pain relief.  Positioned lower than the low back, hip muscles help support your upright posture from underneath.  They also support trunk and spinal movements.

When hip muscles are strong, they can take pressure off both your hip joints and your low back. Keeping hip muscles stretched and pliable may provide shock absorption for your spine as you move throughout the day.  This could translate to injury prevention.

Get Started: Hip Stretching Exercises and Hip Bridges

Redefine Your Core

A woman with a defined core stands, holding dumbells in each hand.
Core is more than ab muscles - it involves the hip, pelvis, back, rib and even shoulder muscles. Mike Harringto/Taxi/Getty Images

Best Workout Routine Hack for Core - Know What it's Made Of

It's no secret that a strong core is key to a healthy back.  But experts differ as to the exact definition of core (in terms of which muscle groups are included.)  Some focus mainly on abdominal muscles while others say the core necessarily involves hips, back, flank, and even shoulder muscles!

The point is, your trunk is your core.  If it is to provide support your spine, all of it, and not just the abs, needs to be strong balanced and flexible. 

Pick Your Exercise Equipment Wisely

An old timey circus strongman pretends to lift a heavy barbell.
Strength training exercises when used wisely can help build support for your back. Alfonso Pagano/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Exercise Equipment - Free Weights

One of the benefits of working out with weights is that it may help you get through the day with more ease and less risk of injury.  Weight training strengthens your muscles and may help prevent loss of muscle mass that often occurs as we age.

If back pain is part of your health concern mix, consider training with free weights.  Free weights are known for working not only the muscle group targeted by a specific exercise but also for challenging trunk and core stabilizers - something that can benefit nearly everyone with back pain.

Specifically, study by Martuscello, et. al, that was published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research in June 2013 concluded that strength training using free weights is better than core-specific exercises for strengthening the all important back muscle group known as the multifidus.

Exercise Equipment - Gym Machines

But gym machines have their place, too.  If your spinal condition causes pain or interferes with your activities, the machines, which generally limit your movements to one plane, can provide a safe way to get started getting strong. 

Regardless of which type of exercise equipment you use, there's no need to be a heroine or hero when you select the poundage. In fact, you may find that little or even no weight gives you all the resistance you need for a productive strength training workout that's good for your back.


Martuscello JM1, Nuzzo JL, Ashley CD, Campbell BI, Orriola JJ, Mayer JM., Systematic review of core muscle activity during physical fitness exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jun;27(6):1684-98. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318291b8da.

Vary Your Workouts

The Best Workout Routine may not Be All That Routine

One great goal to have for a well functioning body is to include exercise and activity variety in your schedule. Not only does variety help with the boredom factor, but it involves and trains more muscles fibers in more ways.  This may result in better back support and injury prevention.

Try switching up your routine in one or more of the following ways:

  • Using different exercises to target the same muscle groups you routinely work.
  • Varying exercise intensity levels (but always work in a pain free zone.)
  • Changing the type of muscle contraction you emphasize.  For example, during strength training, if you tend to use a lot of muscle shortening type contractions, called concentric contraction, consider going slower as you return from a movement.  This works muscles eccentrically, which means they lengthen as they strengthen. Eccentric muscle contractions produce more strength than the commonly experienced concentric type contraction.  And depending on which muscles you target, they can help you prevent injury or re-injury, because they increase both strength and flexibility at joints. Pilates is known for emphasizing eccentric muscle contraction and may make a great adjunct to your usual workout.  
  • Work out in different environments.  If you're a gym rat, try hiking.  If you tend to do exercise videos at home, sign up for a class at your local community center, etc.

Treat Exercise as a Therapy

Senior woman dressed in pink does a shoulder and upper back exercise using a theraband.
Turning your workout routine into exercise therapy can be an enjoyable experience. Tetra Images/Tetra Images/Getty Images

Workout Routine as Therapy

If you think the only way you can benefit from a program is to hit the gym, and try to keep up with the people around you, you may be missing an effective back healing strategy. Exercise doesn't have to be intense to be effective. 

What is Exercise Therapy?

Exercise therapy is practice of using exercise to fulfill your therapeutic goals. Exercise therapy programs can be tailored to your condition and physical constraints.  This way of working may be appropriate after you've been discharged from physical therapy or rehab, after a surgery, or as work hardening, which is conditioning in preparation for job demands.  

People with problems intense enough to cause discomfort or mild pain but not intense enough to warrant medical treatment often use a version of exercise therapy to release tension, develop body awareness, reduce aches and pains and to improve movement.  This can take many forms, including holistic body therapies and gentle body weight-only strengthening movements that don't require a lot of effort.

Related: Alternative Medicine for Spinal Stenosis

Does Exercise Therapy Really Work?

A review of studies by van Middlekoop, published in the April 2010 issue of Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology compared exercise therapy to regular medical care.  The review found improved pain and disability, as well as long term function in chronic back pain patients who tried exercise therapy. Unfortunately, based on the evidence gathered in the review process, the researchers could not identify any one particular type of exercise therapy that was clearly more effective than the others.

Some of the treatments the compared to exercise therapy in the review were back school, behavior therapy, psychotherapy and spinal manipulation.

Related: What is a Back Coach?


van Middelkoop M1, Rubinstein SM, Verhagen AP, Ostelo RW, Koes BW, van Tulder MW. xercise therapy for chronic nonspecific low-back pain. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2010 Apr;24(2):193-204. doi: 10.1016/j.berh.2010.01.002.

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