Core Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain exercises consist mainly of routines that aim to improve the strength and endurance of your core muscles that help support your back and upper body.

By strengthening your core, maintaining an upright or neutral posture for longer periods of time becomes easier.

This in turn helps improve back problems due to excessive strain in your lumbar region, which may occur as a result of overuse or poor posture.

Recommended spinal load limit

(Data sourced from McGill S, Low Back Disorders, 3rd Ed. 2016)
Exercise Compression (Newtons)
Curl-up, feet free 1991
Isometric side bridge 2585
Donkey kick 2000
Bird Dog 3000

The U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommended the lower limit of spinal compression to be 3,300 newtons (730 pounds or 336 kilograms of force).

As a result, routines that impose more than 3,300 newtons of pressure on your back can exacerbate or increase the chances of an injury.

Learn more: Exercises to avoid with lower back pain

All the exercises listed below have been found, by Prof. Stuart McGill of the University of Waterloo (member of the U15, a group of research-intensive universities in Canada), to impose less than 3,300 newtons of pressure on the spine, and may be safely incorporated into your daily or weekly exercise routines.


1. Curl-up, feet free (1991 Newtons)

Dubbed the ‘World’s Best Crunch’ by MensHealth Magazine, the McGill Curl-up is a great exercise for building up your core without hurting your back.

• Lie on your back on the floor. Bend one leg and leave the other straight to preserve the neutral curve in your lumbar spine.

• Take your hands and put them just under the top of your hips.

• Curl forwards just as you would do a crunch, but make sure your torso, head, neck and shoulders move as one solid unit to focus muscle firing on the abdominals.

• Return to original position and repeat with the other leg.


2. Donkey Kick (2000 Newtons)

Donkey Kicks ExerciseThis is another simple but effective lower back pain exercise for strengthening your core. The donkey kick exercise activates one side of your lumbar extensors at a time, imposing just 2000N of force on your spine. Not bad!

• Get down on all fours and position your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.

• Keeping your right knee bent, slowly lift it behind you so your foot rises up towards the ceiling (your ab muscles are being worked at this point, try touching it and you’ll see how solid it is).

• Hold for 10 to 30 seconds. Return to original position and repeat with the other leg.


3. Isometric Side Bridge (2585 Newtons)

Side Plank Bridge
Image via Francisco Jose Vera-Garcia Sports Research Center, Miguel Hernández University of Elche, Alicante, Spain.

The side bridge is an isometric core exercise, where you lie down sideways and support yourself with one arm. By keeping the legs and the upper body in one line, you work your core isometrically.

Isometric exercises are exercises where no motion is involved, so there is is no need to swing your hips up and down when you do this exercise.

• Lie down sideways and support yourself with one arm. The other arm rests on the hip.

• It’s important that you keep your entire body straight. The legs have to be extended and in one line with the spine and the head. Don’t let your hips hang!

• Hold this isometric position for 10 to 30 seconds and do 2 or 3 sets per workout.


4. Bird Dog (3000 Newtons)

Bird Dog Exercise
Image via Francisco Jose Vera-Garcia Sports Research Center, Miguel Hernández University of Elche, Alicante, Spain.

The bird dog exercise is yet another great routine for increasing the strength and endurance of core musculature, especially the abdominals and deep lower back area.

• Kneel on all fours.

• Stretch one arm forward, while stretching the opposite leg out behind. (Optional: make clockwise/anti-clockwise motions with your extended arm/leg).

• Hold for 10 to 30 seconds. Return your arm and leg to original position.

• Repeat with the other hand and leg.


Other beneficial lower back pain exercises

Apart from the core exercises for lower back pain listed above, there are many other physical activites that you could do which would be helpful.

The choice of exercise is ultimately yours, because if you enjoy what you do, you will be more likely to continue and eventually see the benefits.

  • Swimming – water environment takes the strain off your joints and muscles while working out the entire body.
  • Yoga – strengthens core and back muscles and increases flexibility.
  • Pilates – strengthens muscles and the spinal column and promotes good posture.
  • Aerobics – provides a cardiovascular work out and all-over body conditioning which includes the back and core muscles.

See also

Gym machines to avoid for lower back pain sufferers