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My low back is always sore. What type of workout should I do?

Low-back pain is often a sign of a weak core. Try these exercises to strengthen your abdominals safely.
80% of people have complained of low back pain at least once in their life.
80% of people have complained of low back pain at least once in their life.dragana991 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

As a personal trainer and weight-loss coach, I am constantly answering health and fitness questions from my clients, on social media and in our Start TODAY Facebook group. In this column, I address some of the most common questions and roadblocks that trip people up on their journey to establish a health and fitness routine. 

My low back is always sore. What type of workouts should I do and what should I avoid?

If you suffer from low-back pain, you’re not alone! Research shows that about 80% of people have complained about having low-back pain at least once in their life.

I was formally a sufferer of low-back pain myself and many workouts made me feel worse. Until I finally discovered Pilates almost 15 years ago, I was unaware of the impact my weak core had on my low back. Everyday movements, like loading the dishwasher, doing laundry or picking up things off of the ground, would make my low back ache.

Another reason why your low back could be sore is from overuse or over-lifting without proper form. As a health and fitness coach, I am always recommending modifications and ways to properly lift weights to avoid any injuries. I also encourage my clients to listen to their bodies. If something doesn’t feel good, stop!

Of course, you should always consult your doctor before starting any exercise routine. But once you get the all clear, there are a few exercises you can do to strengthen the core and ease low-back pain, like pelvic tilts, Pilates crunches and forward folds.

In terms of exercise modalities, here are my top recommendations for what type of workouts to do and what type to avoid if you suffer from a sore low back.

Workouts to avoid if you have back pain

  • High-impact workouts: I recommend avoiding exercises that specifically include jumping because this puts strain on the low back, especially if your abs are not engaged, which can be hard to focus on while you’re in motion. Workouts that include jump squats, jumping lunges, or even jumping from a plank forward into a forward fold in yoga, should be avoided.
  • Cardio moves in plank position: Exercises that incorporate jumping or quick movement while in a plank, like mountain climbers or plank jacks, can also strain the low back. The core helps support the low back and when you are moving quickly in a plank position and twisting the body, it can be challenging to maintain core engagement throughout each move. And keeping your core engaged is key to safely performing a plank. If you suffer from low-back pain avoid adding in additional movement (especially anything high-impact) and work on static planks instead, with all of your focus on engaging the core.
  • Spinning: Sitting on a spin bike requires leaning forward, which can strain the low back if you’re not engaging the core and supporting it with proper posture. I find that my many of my private clients who get on a bike or go to a spin class complain of low back pain even if they didn’t enter into the workout with low back pain! I discourage people from starting this type of workout if they already suffer from low back pain because it is challenging to properly engage the abdominal muscles while moving so quickly and pedaling.

Back-pain approved workouts

  • Pilates: No surprise here; Pilates is my number one recommendation for people with low back pain. Not only am I such a big fan because of personal experience, but also because Pilates was originally created to help soldiers recover from injuries. The precise movements and instruction on core engagement in Pilates helps to strengthen the core, including the back, and reduce pain. Almost every instructor warns against feeling a tug or a pull in the low back during exercises; something I don’t hear many cycling or HIIT instructors reminding their students of.
  • Yoga: I also recommend yoga for those who suffer from low-back pain, but only if you’re able to pull your naval in toward your spine during forward folds. When I was suffering with low-back pain, I wondered why yoga actually made it worse. I am overly flexible, so as I was stretching my muscles I was also pulling on my low back in positions that were out of alignment because I didn’t have the core strength to compensate for my flexibility. It wasn’t until I learned how to properly engage my core that I was able to do yoga in a way that made my low back feel better instead of worse. Many people, however, suffer from being inflexible or too tight in their muscles. Tight muscles do contribute to low back pain, so it’s important to stretch them. Therefore, yoga is a form of exercise that I do recommend for people with low-back pain.
  • Low-impact strength training: I recommend doing upper-body exercises with dumbbells and also lower-body exercises like half squats or leg lifts to strengthen the muscles of the body in general. Strength training helps hug the muscles to the bone, improve balance and increase stability. All of these things help to strengthen the torso, the core and the low back. Plus, movements like leg lifts, bicep curls and even resistance band exercises done standing up should not irritate a sore low back if done with proper form.
  • Walking. I can't finish a list of back-friendly exercises without mentioning my favorite type of exercise: walking! It is an accessible, low-impact form of cardio, meaning it's easy on the joints and doesn't place undue stress on the back like high-impact forms of cardio can. Done consistently, walking can also aid in weight loss, and holding extra weight on your body can put stress on your back, causing pain. So incorporating cardio that helps you maintain a healthy weight is an important step in reducing pain.

More of your questions, answered!

If all I do is walk, is that a good enough workout?