4 Exercises That’ll Make Your Back Pain Worse (And What To Do Instead)
An achy back makes it easy to blow off your workouts. But any doctor, physical therapist, or trainer will tell you that exercising is probably the best thing for your back: It can actually speed your recovery and help prevent pain down the road.
The only hitch is that you must avoid moves that will make your problem worse, says Bob Fischer, a personal trainer in Southampton, PA, who specializes in training men and women over age 50. Once you've seen a doctor to rule out potentially serious causes of your back pain, it's time to get moving. "If your back pain is acute, gentle exercise like walking boosts circulation, which sends a fresh supply of oxygenated blood to the place where you feel pain," he explains. "This reduces the inflammation that's causing your discomfort, helping you feel better faster."
Fischer adds that once the intense pain phase has passed and you're dealing with more of a chronic, nagging issue, strength training is key. "It's important to work the key muscles surrounding the back, such as the glutes, hamstrings, and abdominals, to help support the back and reduce future incidences of pain," he says. The catch is making sure those exercises don't cause further harm.
Here are the 4 riskiest moves when you have chronic back issues, and what to do instead to tone safely.
Exercise to Avoid: Sit-Ups
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Going from laying flat to sitting upright puts a tremendous amount of strain on your spine, says Fischer, particularly if your core is weak—a common issue for people with back pain. "When you don't have the muscles in the front of your body to power you as you sit up, your low back ends up doing the brunt of the work, and that will exacerbate pain," he says.
Exercise to Do Instead: Half Crunches
While most people will tell you to hold a plank, Fischer says half-crunches are actually better—as long as you only come up to a 20-degree angle as opposed to a 90-degree angle with a sit-up. (Your shoulders should come about 5 or 6 inches off the floor.) "I like this exercise because it gets your upper abs to work without putting strain on the back," says Fischer. "Holding your body weight in plank while trying to keep your back straight can put a lot of pressure on your back muscles." (Try one of these no-crunch ab exercises to transform your core.)
Exercise to Avoid: Deadlifts
Squatting over a barbell and raising the weight up using your legs can help strengthen your back as well—provided you use proper form. "Too often, I see people at the gym doing deadlifts with their low backs rounded excessively, which compresses your vertebral discs," he says.
Exercise to Do Instead: Leg Presses on a Machine
This move strengthens your hamstring and glutes, just like deadlifts. However, it takes your back out of the equation and minimizes the chance of your body shifting into poor form.
Exercise to Avoid: Burpees
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This tried-and-true calorie-blasting move involves repeatedly dropping down into a push up and then bouncing back up into a jump. Burpees are surging in popularity and part of many gym classes and trainer-guidedworkouts, but you should skip them if you have back issues—or even if you have a history of back pain, says Fischer. "Burpees activate the majority of muscles in your upper and lower body, and also involve jumping in explosive, high-impact movements," he says. "Not only can this be painful for those already dealing with back pain, but it can even cause back pain if the muscles you're using in order to perform the burpees are weak."
Exercise to Do Instead: High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
The next time you're doing a strength-training session, interrupt your routine every 10 to 15 minutes to do 2 to 3 minutes of fast-paced cardio intervals on the treadmill or elliptical. And by "fast-paced" Fischer doesn't mean running or another high-impact cardio exercise. (Try this walking workout for maximum calorie burn.) "You'll be surprised at how you can really get your heart rate up by walking briskly or even picking up your usual pace on the elliptical," he says. "These bouts of high-intensity cardio will increase your calorie burn and boost your cardiovascular health without exacerbating your back pain."
Exercise to Avoid: Toe Touches
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Chronic hamstring tightness can cause pain in the low back. Yet if you do traditional toe touches in order to stretch the backs of your legs, there's a good chance you'll round your back too much, and put pressure on your spine, says Fischer. "Keep in mind that as you get older, your muscles get inherently tighter, and that's compounded if you sit for much of the day," says Fischer. The tighter those muscles, the more rounding you'll have to do to touch your toes.
Exercise to Do Instead: Supine Hamstring Stretch
Lay flat on your back, legs straight, and bring your left knee to your chest and grasp it with both hands. Pull it toward your chest until you feel a stretch in your left hamstring; hold it for 20 to 30 seconds, then repeat with your left leg. (Here are 3 safe ways to stretch your hamstrings.) "This exercise is safe for the back because you do it while flat on the ground, which ensures the spine stays in neutral alignment," says Fischer.