The Science of Excercise

The Best Back Exercises for Preventing Injury and Reducing Pain

A man's back
(Image credit: Anastasiia Kazakova/

A healthy back is important not just for exercising and playing sports but also for performing everyday tasks, from tying your shoes to cleaning the house. Certain exercises can help prevent back injuries, but it's important to know which ones will help you and which ones could actually lead to injury.

There is a lot of information out there on back exercises, and some tips are more useful and accurate than others. At Live Science, we've done the research, looking at studies and talking to top experts. So, when it comes to figuring out the best ways to exercise your back, we've got your… well, you know.

Having a "healthy back" means more than just having strong back muscles; the muscles need to be able to work together properly to stabilize your spine, said Stuart M. McGill, director of the Spine Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and author of "Back Mechanic" (Backfitpro Inc, 2015).

"It's not always about strength; it's about the coordination and control of all of those muscles," McGill told Live Science. In fact, people who perform exercises to strengthen specific back muscles, in isolation, actually tend to get hurt sooner than those who perform exercises to strengthen all of their back and core muscles, McGill said. [6 Remarkable Human Muscles]

Another important factor is muscle endurance, or the ability of the muscles to contract for long periods without getting tiered, McGill said. If your back muscles get tired easily, it will cause you to "break form" when you're exercising, or move in a way that increases your risk of injury, he said.

Research shows that these exercises can help prevent back injuries and reduce back pain. (Image credit: Purch Creative Ops)

As such, some of the best exercises for the average person are ones aimed at boosting muscle endurance and teaching your muscles to move in the right way to stabilize your spine, McGill said.

Over years of research, McGill and colleagues have identified the three best beginner back exercises for the average person. Their research shows that these exercises challenge the core muscles in the front, side and back of the body, and ensure stability of the spine but, at the same time, do not place high loads of force on the spine, McGill said. Studies of these exercises showed that they can both help prevent back injuries and reduce back pain, he said.

These exercises are also safe for most people to perform because they keep the spine in a so-called "neutral" position — one that preserves the natural curves of the spine (which you have when you stand upright), rather than bending the spine. Exercises that bend the spine can squeeze the discs between the vertebrae, which pushes on the gel-like substance inside the discs and increases the risk for disc herniation (or a "slipped disc"), said Michael Bracko, a sports physiologist based in Calgary, Alberta, who was not involved in McGill's research but who also recommends these exercises.

It's important to note, however, that the "best" back exercises will vary from person to person, depending on the person's body type, history of back problems and other factors. The following exercises — dubbed the "big three" — are based on what works well for people on average.

Bird dog:

  • Start on all fours, with your spine in a neutral position (not arching upward or downward). Make sure your hands are in line with your shoulders and your knees are in line with your hips.
  • Contract your ab muscles.
  • Lift one arm upward and straight forward, until it's fully straightened parallel to the floor, and lift the opposite leg straight back so it's also straight and parallel to the floor.
  • Try to keep your back and head still while moving from your hips and shoulders.
  • Hold for about 10 seconds. (Do not hold for more than 10 seconds if you have a history of back pain.)
  • Bring your arm and leg back to the starting position.
  • Repeat with the opposite arm and leg.

This exercise works most of the muscles in your back, including the erector spinae (which is the group of muscles that runs vertically down the back, close to the spine) and the rhomboid muscles (which run from the spine outward toward the shoulder blades), Bracko said. It even works the gluteus maximus (or glutes) in the butt, which are also important for core strength.

Exactly how many repetitions you do for each of the "big three" exercises will depend on your physical shape and whether you have a history of back pain. But you should aim to do the same number of sets and repetitions for each of these three exercises, so that you work the muscles in the side, back and front of your core equally, McGill said. For people with back pain,McGill recommends performing the exercises in what's called a "Russian descending pyramid." An example of this pyramid would be performing five repetitions on one side and then five repetitions on the other side, with 10 seconds of rest in between. Then, do another set of three repetitions on each side (resting in between), and a final set of one repetitions on each side.

Side plank

  • Lie on your side, with your elbow and forearm flat on the floor (with your elbow in line with your shoulder, and bent at a 90-degree angle).
  • Bend your knees.
  • Lift yourself up by your hips, so that your upper body forms a straight line down to your knees.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds, and switch to the other side.
  • To make this exercise harder, do the same exercise, but keep your legs straight instead of bending them.

Modified curl-up

  • Lie on your back, with one leg straight along the floor, and one knee bent.
  • Put your hands beneath your lower back, with your palms down (so that your hands are between your back and the floor).
  • Lift your head and shoulders slightly (about a half inch) off the ground.
  • Hold for about 10 seconds, and bring your head back to the floor.

Exercise don'ts

As we mentioned earlier, exercises that bend the spine can increase the risk of injury to the spinal discs. For this reason, exercises that take the spine out of the neutral position are generally not recommended, Bracko said. That means you should avoid doing traditional sit-ups/crunches, and the "Superman" exercise, in which you lie on your stomach on the floor and then raise your arms and legs so that your body forms a "U" shape, Bracko said.

If you have access to some equipment, check out our full article on these great back exercises you can do at the gym.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.