The Worst Exercises for Back Pain

Certain workouts can aggravate back pain. Try these instead.

1 / 7

Just because you have back pain, doesn’t mean you have to be relegated to the couch. In fact, sitting around may actually worsen back pain. Once you’ve recovered from an injury, and with your doctor’s blessing, lace up your shoes and get moving again. There are plenty of safe exercises to do that won’t strain your back.

We spoke with physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and Medical Director Allen Kaisler-Meza, MD, of Regional Medical Center in California, to learn which exercises to avoid if you have back pain, and which to do instead. Click through to learn more.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

Avoid: Crunches

2 / 7 Avoid: Crunches

Classic sit-ups and crunches—moves that involve arching your back—can puts pressure on spine discs.

Try this instead: Modified sit-ups. Start by lying on your back. With both feet planted on the ground, bring your knees up to a bent position. Cross your arms over your chest, tuck your chin in and raise yourself up until your shoulder blades come off the ground. “Elevate your upper shoulder and reach up towards the ceiling with your head. This way you don’t come up beyond shoulder level, you don't flex the neck and you don't arch forward to your bent knees,” says Dr. Kaisler-Meza. Hold this position for three to five seconds, then return to the flat position on your back.

Avoid: High-impact Activities

3 / 7 Avoid: High-impact Activities

“High impact exercises … [such as jogging and high-impact aerobics] can put pressure on a disc and cause more injury,” explains Kaisler-Meza. Also, avoid movements that cause twisting, such as golf, as it can up back pain pressure.

Try this instead: Water aerobics or yoga. Because of the buoyancy of the water, swimming can give you a workout without jarring motions so your body can heal. Yoga’s great too because it focuses on relaxation, posture and flexibility. Kaisler-Meza recommends working with an instructor who’s knowledgeable with back pain injuries, as some yoga postures may need to be modified.

Avoid: Running

4 / 7 Avoid: Running

A runner’s high may be a great feeling, but the repetitive pounding of your feet on the gravel or treadmill can wreak havoc on your back by putting stress on a disc or strained muscle.

Try this instead: Walking. Walking tones and strengthens your lower back and leg muscles, and can be gentle on your back as you recover from an injury. “You will not cause any physical damage to your spine by walking,” says Kaisler-Meza. “If you’re recovering from a back flare up or you have back pain, start out ten minutes a day, walk outside or walk on a track. If that hurts, start in the water.”

Avoid: Biking Off Road

5 / 7 Avoid: Biking Off Road

You may be safe biking outdoors if you are on a smooth road; however, the bouncing you experience when you’re biking on a trail can exacerbate back pain. So can the arched forward position.

Try this instead: Use a recumbent bike. A recumbent exercise bike supports your lower back because it forces you to keep your back straight and erect. These types of bikes can help you maintain proper posture and stay “spine neutral,” where you’re putting an equal amount of pressure on your spine. “This way, you’re getting the aerobic exercise of the biking, as well as the toning and strengthening in the legs, which can, conversely, be excellent for back pain sufferers,” says Kaisler-Meza.

Avoid: Lifting Heavy Weights

6 / 7 Avoid: Lifting Heavy Weights

Aside from adding pressure to your back, lifting free weights, like dumbbells, can also cause you to hold your breath, which increases pressure in your abdomen and leads to more back pain.

Try this instead: Light machine weights. Machine weights are safer for vulnerable backs because you have more control over the weights. Kaisler-Meza recommends using light weights and doing lots of reps. “If you lifted weights and you had a back injury, you should never go back to the weights you were doing initially,” he says. “I always tell people, cut your weights by at least a quarter. If you used to lift 100 pounds, do 75 and focus on the reps.”

Do: Listen to Your Body

7 / 7 Do: Listen to Your Body

It’s important to listen to your body when exercising. If you feel any unusual pain, stop what you’re doing. “What you want to do is emphasize good form, repetition and things that may cause some soreness—but you don't want to do any exercises that actually imitate or replicate your pain,” says Kaisler-Meza. Also, remember to always stretch before any activity.

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