5 Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Achy break-y back? Trainer Marc Megna has your fix.

Exercises for Lower Back Pain
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Lower back pain is, well, a total pain, and it's also really hard to eliminate. A February 2016 review of 23 studies found that most lower back pain interventions —including back belts and shoe inserts — aren't particularly effective. In fact, it turns out that exercise — from aerobics to plain ol' stretching — is the most effective way to get rid of your pain.

Which is why we asked Marc Megna, owner and body architect at Anatomy at 1220 in Miami Beach, to come up with five exercises that can help you say goodbye to lower back pain once and for all.

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High Tension Planks

Exercises for Lower Back Pain
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"A common issue with those with low back pain is a lack of core strength," says Megna. This is because the most popular core strength exercises — like crunches and twists — can exacerbate the problem. Instead, try planks.

How to do it: Begin lying face down with your forearms on the floor and hands slightly above your shoulders. Keep your elbows tucked into your body and your toes tucked underneath your feet. Press into the ground through your forearms and hands to elevate the body so your elbows are under your shoulders. Keep your body in a straight line with your belly button pulled into the spine and tension developed in the core, buttocks, and the front of the thighs. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, then repeat. Try out side planks, too: One elbow remains under your shoulder while your feet are stacked on top of one another.

Take it up a notch: With practice, planks can be repeated up to 3 times for a total of 4 holds within a set. Perform 2 to 3 sets, resting 1 to 2 minutes between each set.

Bird Dogs

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"Planks and side planks are great exercises for the anterior and lateral core, but one area that we still need to address is the posterior core," Megna says. Cue the bird dog exercise, which does just that.

How to do it: Begin in a four-point position with your hands on the floor directly under your shoulders, knees directly under your hips, and your toes tucked under the feet. Keeping the core tight, push one heel straight back by squeezing your buttocks, until your leg is parallel to the floor. Return to the start position and repeat on the other leg. Perform for 10 repetitions on each leg for 2 to 3 sets, taking 1 to 2 minutes between each set.

Take it up a notch: Once this movement has been mastered, progress to extending the opposite arm forward, trying to get as much distance as possible between the outstretched fingers and the opposite heel. Just don't allow your body to shift out of position.

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Split Squats

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Let's not forget about lower body strength. According to Megna, it's just as important as core strength when it comes to helping lower back pain.

"One of the simplest — yet most effective — lower body exercises to learn is the split squat, which can later be progressed to a reverse lunge to further emphasize the posterior leg muscles that aid in lower back pain alleviation and prevention," he says.

How to do it: Begin in a half-kneeling position so your front knee is at 90 degrees directly over the foot. The back knee is directly below the hips with the toes of the back foot tucked under. Place your hands on your hips and keep a tall spine. Press through the front heel and mid-foot to push the body vertically until the front knee is straight. To lower, use the heel of the front leg to lower the body straight down until the back knee comfortably touches the ground. During this exercise, be sure that your hips rise and fall in a nearly straight vertical line so your front knee doesn't go over your toes. Perform for 2 to 3 sets of 10 repetitions per leg with 1 to 2 minutes between sets.

If you feel pain: If strength or pain is an issue, place as many pillows or towels under the back knee as needed to decrease the range of motion to a comfortable depth.

Take it up a notch: Once the split squat is mastered, try the reverse lunge: Start in a standing position and step back to the distance of the split squat top position to begin the reverse lunge. Lower the body as in the split squat. However, when rising back up, really pull through the front heel to return to the initial standing position.

Pushups

Exercises for Lower Back Pain
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You definitely know this move. "The pushup works your entire upper body, improving strength in your chest, shoulders, arms, and back," says Megna, who refers to the exercise as a "moving plank."

How to do it: Begin in the same position as you would for a plank, lying on your stomach with your toes tucked under. Place your hands on the ground with your elbows 45 degrees away from your body. While the core, thighs, and buttocks are squeezed, push into the floor with your hands until your elbows are fully extended. Your body should remain in a straight line. To lower, slowly allow your body to drop by bending your elbows, maintaining body posture, and keeping your elbows 45 degrees away from your body. Begin with 2 to 3 sets of 5 repetitions and work up to sets of 10 with 1 to 2 minutes of rest between sets.

Make it easier: Raise your hands to a bench, chair, ottoman, or another stable object. The larger the angle between the body and floor, the less difficult the exercise.

Take it up a notch: This concept can also be applied to a horizontal body row using either a barbell in a squat rack or suspension device to train the pulling motion while in a plank position.

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Low-Intensity Aerobic Training

So we've checked off all the exercises that attack the direct common causes of lower back pain, but Megna says some indirect treatment is needed, as well.

"An often overlooked aspect of physical fitness for those in pain, or who require recovery, is low-intensity training. This type of exercise will increase blood flow, enhancing the natural healing capabilities of the body, as well as activate the parasympathetic nervous system — the 'rest and digest' system — which can tone down pain and help restore the body," he says.

How to do it: Spending significant amounts of time (30 minutes and above) in a low intensity zone (heart rate of 120-150 beats per minute) is recommended multiple times per week for recovery and healing, Megna says. You can accomplish this in multiple ways — from walking or swimming to hiking or biking.

Tip: If you don't have a heart rate monitor, Megna suggests shooting for an intensity level where you're breathing heavier than normal but are still able to speak in a conversation.

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