Exercises That Won’t Hurt Your Back

Strengthen your back to prevent injuries.

man standing on a running track holding his painful back
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Often back pain is the result of sports injuries or improper lifting—either in the gym or around the house. One of the best things you can do to prevent injury and back pain is to keep your back muscles strong. To do that, you need to exercise. But, it’s critical to do the right kinds of exercises, the right way.

We spoke to physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Dr. Allen Kaisler-Meza, MD, of Regional Medical Center of San Jose, in California, to learn how to stay injury free and fit.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

senior woman sitting on balancing ball lifting light weights
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Start Slowly

If you are new to exercise, or recovering from an injury, start slowly, and always listen to your body. Learn to distinguish between soreness, which is generally okay, and actual pain. “For example, if you’re suffering from sharp, localized back pain—the exercise you’re doing may be causing more harm,” says Dr. Kaisler-Meza, MD. Stop and reevaluate.

Always talk to your doctor, or a qualified trainer, before starting a new exercise routine so you create a plan that works best for your body. Remember, what works for one person may not necessarily work for you.

woman on her back in a serene yoga studio, holding her knees, stretching her back
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Stretch Your Back

You know it’s always a good idea to begin any workout with a stretch, but are you stretching your back, too? To reduce your risk of injury, it’s important that you do so. Try the double knee to chest stretch. Lie on your back and pull both knees to your chest. Hold that position for 30 seconds, release and repeat two to three times.

Learn more back stretch exercises.

view of feet in gray sneakers walking toward the camera outdoors
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Take a Walk

Walking is a great workout for those new to exercise and fitness gurus alike. Plus, it’s good for your back. “Walking builds muscle tone, strength and is an aerobic workout,” says Kaisler-Meza.

But walk tall and keep your back straight. “We know that some back conditions are aggravated by certain postures,” he says.

happy senior couple walking their bikes in a park
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Start Cycling

Biking is another good exercise to get your heart pumping and build muscles, but you need to position yourself correctly. Start out on a recumbent stationary bike at the gym. Once you are stronger, you can take your ride outdoors. But to prevent potential back pain, stay on smooth roads and off of bumpy trails.

Keep in mind: Riding on a regular bike forces your back into an arched-forward posture, which adds pressure on your discs. So, whether you’re on a stationary bike or the real deal, it’s important to listen to your body and make adjustments when necessary.

woman in her studio apartment stretches in a yoga pose on a mat on the floor
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Say “Om”

A strong core supports your abs and lower back and improves balance and stability, which, in turn, prevents falls and injuries. Yoga helps build a strong core and improves strength and flexibility. But if it’s done improperly, you could injure yourself or worsen back pain. Remember to listen to your body. If a pose causes pain, back off and ask the instructor for a different way to do it.

senior man on a weight bench gets assistance from a personal trainer spotting him while he lifts dumbbells
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Lift Smart

Lifting weights helps build strong back muscles. But you need to know what you are doing. Before you start a weight lifting regime, meet with a trainer and let him or her show you how to lift properly using the right amount of weight. Kaisler-Meza recommends using machine weights over free weights, especially if you had an injury, because you have a little bit more control over them. If you have an acute back injury, or flare up, you shouldn’t lift until you recover, he says.

closeup of a woman from behind, clutching her lower back in pain while on an outdoor run
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Pay Attention to Pain

If you feel unusual or sharp back pain, stop exercising immediately. Either you’re doing the exercise wrong or the exercise itself is causing the pain, says Kaisler-Meza. If the pain persists, you should see a doctor. Together, you can find out the source of the pain and come up with an exercise routine that works best for your body.

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