Going through daily life with back pain is a serious downer. When a heavy squat snatch triggered something in my lower back during the CrossFit Open earlier this year, I didn’t know the half of what I was in for. Nearly four months, an X-ray, and an MRI later, I’ve completely adjusted my fitness routine to avoid angering what turned out to be arthritis in my lumbar spine. As a certified personal trainer and indoor cycling instructor, being on the injured list is a struggle. But what I’ve learned about back pain (aside from patience, patience, patience) has made me better and, ultimately, stronger.
The biggest lesson of the past year: Back pain doesn't typically originate in the back. My tight hips and weak core caused my back to take on too much and overcompensate. Since my diagnosis, I’ve worked hard with a physical therapist to alleviate the pressure on my lower back by strengthening the surrounding muscle groups that support the spine, including the core, hips, and glutes.
Does my story sound familiar? Welcome to the back-issue club. To help us all, I put together this list of 11 key core, back, and hip exercises that will keep your back—and the muscles that support it—strong and healthy.
How to use this list: You will need a stability ball and a mini resistance band for these exercises. Perform each move for 30 seconds. For one-sided exercises, complete 30 seconds on one side before switching to the other. To create your own workout, choose 5 to 7 of your favorite exercises, rest for 10 seconds between each, and complete 3 to 5 sets. Or scroll to the bottom of this article to try our essential back-strengthening workout.
As always, if you're experiencing pain, consult a physician before starting any exercise program. If all clear, these moves are great for injury prevention and overall strength.
Start lying facedown on top of a stability ball, core engaged for balance with hands placed lightly behind head. With toes securely on the ground as if you’re in a plank position, lift chest off the ball until spine is straight or slightly extended. Return to starting position for 1 rep.
Start in high plank position with hands directly under shoulders and feet resting on ball. Engage core for balance. Use abs to lift hips straight up until weight comes over shoulders and ball rolls forward under toes—your body should look like an upside-down V. Keep a slight bend in knees if you don't have the flexibility. Slowly lower back to start for 1 rep.
Start in a forearm plank on the ball with elbows directly under shoulders, toes resting on floor, and core engaged so body maintains a straight line from shoulders to heels. Engage abs and slowly make small clockwise circles with elbows on the ball, keeping the rest of your body as still as possible. Repeat counterclockwise for 1 rep.
Banded Clockwise Step
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart in a mini squat, knees slightly bent with a band around thighs. Clasp hands in front of chest. Step about 6 inches forward with right foot, placing whole foot on the ground (not just toes). Return to starting position. Step 6 inches to right and then return to starting position. Step 6 inches back and then return to starting position for 1 rep. Repeat on other side using left foot.
Start with band around thighs just above knees. Lie on floor on left side with knees stacked and bent 90 degrees, left elbow below left shoulder, and right hand on hip. Keeping core tight and hips still, rotate right hip open to splay knees (like a clamshell opening) and then lower back to starting position for 1 rep. Continue for 30 seconds then repeat on other side.
Begin on all fours, hips stacked over knees, shoulders over wrists, with a mini resistance band around thighs just above knees. Keeping a 90-degree bend in right leg, lift knee up and out to the right to be as level as possible with right hip. Try to keep hips and upper body still, not leaning into left side. Once you feel tension, lower the leg back to start. That’s 1 rep. Continue for 30 seconds then repeat on other side.
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet flat on floor. Brace core, then lift hips so body forms a straight line from shoulders to knees. Slowly lower hips back down to starting position. Continue to repeat.
Side Plank Dip
Start in a side plank position with left elbow directly under left shoulder, right arm extended up to ceiling, feet staggered, and core engaged. Keeping feet staggered to alleviate extra pressure on the lower back, brace core and lift hips straight up. Slowly lower hips back down to starting position while maintaining tension in core for 1 rep. Continue for 30 seconds then repeat on other side.
Lie faceup on floor with hips and knees bent 90 degrees and core engaged so lower back presses into floor. Lift head off floor without straining neck and place palms of hands on knees. Press hands into knees as you use them to give resistance. Hold, maintaining resistance, for 30 seconds.
Start on all fours in a tabletop position with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Simultaneously reach right arm forward as you kick left heel straight back to extend left leg. Make sure you engage core to keep back in a neutral position throughout the entire movement. Hold for 1 count and then return to starting position. Continue to alternate sides.
Start kneeling with arms resting at sides. Keeping a straight line from shoulder to knee, slowly lean back, engaging your core until you feel this in quads (tops of thighs). Use abs to pull upper body back up to starting position. Repeat.