Unexplained low back pain. How many people do you know who experience and talk about it? Unfortunately, it’s one of the most common issues I see. You can sit on a bench at the mall or the airport and watch hundreds of people walk by that are in obvious discomfort, right? If you’re one of them, I’m happy you’re here.
In our society today, we are forward flexed much of the time. Be it at our desk, driving in the car, or sitting with a laptop, our backside gets no work when we’re sitting on it, and our bellies can lose all sense of pride when we’re in a seated position. Forward flexed positions may not cause you back pain, but maybe you feel tightness in your low back and hips.
Although there are a variety of reasons for low back pain or discomfort, if there isn’t an obvious culprit like an injury or car accident, there’s a real good chance it could be coming from certain muscles sleeping on the job.
Whether you have a weak or bad back, or just know you need to strengthen your core, l promise this concept and these exercises will be extremely beneficial (unless you are a Pilates Rockstar, then you’re probably all set!). Think of your core as everything except your head and limbs and you’ll quickly see how these exercises will help your overall posture and strength.
Lesson low back pain; here’s the concept:
When we have unexplained low back pain, our low back is most likely overworked; it’s usually making up for weak abs, tight hip flexors, and a lazy butt. Our bodies are amazing at compensating and that’s not always a good thing.
This combo is very sly; I never knew my butt was lazy or my abs were weak, I found out when I thought I was in my best and leanest shape!
So basically, we’re here to strengthen the abs (+ stabilize the pelvis), loosen up those hip flexors, and turn on the glutes! At the end of the blog, you’ll be able to download an at-a-glance version of these exercises so once you understand how to make them effective you’ll have it handy.
By committing to and doing these few exercises very slow and controlled, you’ll:
- find your back loosening up and feeling relief (possibly eliminating your low back pain).
- notice your abs and butt getting stronger.
- be gifting your body a strong foundation which sets the stage for any and all other movements.
- be building core strength (and pelvic stabilization) so you’ll be good to go with compound exercise (combining upper and lower body exercises simultaneously), without compromising your back
- work into workouts that will be more efficient and take less time.
- improve your posture and carry yourself more confidently.
- hopefully, want to share what you know to help someone else.
***If you happen to have Excessive Lumbar Lordosis (swayback), I’m hoping you’ll take this information even more to heart.
When we have more low back curve than normal, our backs are especially vulnerable to low back pain. Over time, without awareness and attention to detail, we are more geared for problems. (I had been doing squats for 30+ years the way we are taught. “Stick your butt out!” I’m here to tell you, that when we’re extra lordotic, it’s already out there, so we have to tweak things a bit…Or else!)
Keep in mind, that the exercises seem so simple you may think there’s no way they’ll help low back pain.
It’s about correct form and pace, consistency, and trusting in the process. I remind my clients that if they won’t do the little things, they won’t do the big things either: patience and belief are a must anytime we are trying to make lasting changes of any kind. And if you happen to have low back pain, hopefully, you’ll believe it’s worth the effort.
***Always check with your Dr. before starting an exercise program, especially if you have had an accident or a serious back injury.
***SUGGESTION: grab another pair of eyes or a mirror if you can, I’m not kidding when I say that these seem too easy. If you partner with a friend or spouse, it can be fun and very helpful. If you find out your glutes are lazy (like I did) at least you’ll have support, HA! Plus, you might get a kick out of busting each other coming out of the proper position that you think is so easy!
*** Be sure to get your free PDF with the at-a-glance version of all of stretches and exercises at the end of the blog!
Here are two key hip flexor stretches:
The goal here is to get and keep these babies stretched out. Because of where the hip flexors attach, when they’re tight they automatically pull on the low back.
1. Standing Hip Flexor Stretch
Note: Static stretching always needs to be done when your muscles are warm. If you can incorporate this into your shower routine after you’ve been in the hot water for a few minutes, you will be gifting your body a great thing. Otherwise, be sure you’ve been up and around with intentional movement before holding this stretch full on.
- Staggered Stance, weight even in both legs.
- Upright torso, don’t lean forward or back.
- The weight of your back leg is in your toe box, your heel is slightly lifted due to wide stance.
- Left foot close to wall or door to prevent leaning.
- Tuck your butt (pelvis) under as far as it will go. This should automatically cause your knee to bend, you don’t want to purposefully bend it.
- Keep your back foot where it is but allow your heel to come up easily as your knee begins to flex.
- Squeeze your butt firmly.
- Your shoulder, hip, and knee should be aligned in the end position.
- Hold for 15-30 seconds.
- Do 3-5 reps each side initially, then just check in and do what’s needed as you loosen over time.
~You should feel a nice stretch in the back leg right where your hip hinges, and down your thigh.
If you don’t get a deep enough stretch, bend front leg into more of a lunge position and widen your stance.
- Same form as above but by widening your stance you’ll be lower to the floor.
- Be sure that your front knee stays directly over the ankle (to form a 90* angle).
This exercise comes down to the fact that you want to master this PPT (Posterior Pelvic Tilt) because it segue’s into many more exercise varieties. PLUS- it in itself is soothing when you are experiencing low back pain.
~I always smirk when the light bulb goes on for people that “think” they don’t get this tuck movement; if you have helped procreate or gone through the motions of, you KNOW this motion!)
~Another way to get the tuck comes from one of my clients who was a horse riding trainer: She told her students to bend over enough to get a good look at their belt buckle.
~One more: if you’re in a dress and you’re going to sit down, you tuck under to straighten your dress before sitting on it. Pretty much like your lower body goes into a bit of a fetal position. (Sorry guys, I know you don’t wear dresses, but you get the idea!)
2. Butterfly Stretch
Position 1: (left photos)
- Sit tall with soles of your feet together.
- Your hands hold on to your feet as your knees gently fall out.
Position 2: (right photos)
- Keeping your back straight, try to press your knees towards the floor. (Don’t force it, you want a challenge but no pain.)
- If you can already get knees to the floor, lean your upper body forward more.
Here are the exercises:
Everything here is about S L O W and controlled movement. Even if you’ve done them in the past, I hope you’ll revisit them with more intention and this slow-mo version.
1. Posterior Pelvic Tilt on the Floor- The goal here is to press your low back to the floor taking out any arch in your back (I have my fingers poking through to show an exaggerated arch- this may not be too far off if you have an excessive curve in your low back). You’ll be contracting (shortening) your abdominals to help make it happen. This tucking motion is the foundation for all exercises below and much more, so you want to get good at it.
- Lie on your back with knees bent, feet on the floor about hip-width apart.
- Take a deep breath in and exhale as you press your low back into the floor. As you are doing this, pretend you’re trying to get your hip bones and your rib cage to touch. You should feel your abdominal’s engage.
- You don’t want any space between your low back and the floor.
- Hold for 15 seconds.
- Repeat 5-10 times.
2. Hip Bridge- The goal here is to turn on the glutes. You want to feel your butt working to lift you off the floor. ~Weakness in the glutes is very, very common. This bridge series is a great test and an awesome warm up for the glutes.
- Lie on your back with knees bent, feet on the floor about hip-width apart.
- Do pelvic tilt (tucking butt under while abs shorten) (1)
- Keep your weight back in your heels (2)
- While holding your pelvic tilt, press through your heels and lift and squeeze your butt. (3)
- Hold for 15-30 seconds
- Repeat 5-10 times
~Most people need to reset the pelvis between reps. This looks and feels very easy if you’re not holding your pelvic tilt and pressing through your heels. If you’re not feeling a nice stretch in the front of your thighs (quads) and you’re not feeling your butt muscles working (glutes), then start over with the steps. You shouldn’t be able to lift off the floor very high if everything is where it belongs.
***Only if you can hold your bridge while tucked under and can feel your glutes, try these next bridge varieties. Warning: you will feel these in your low back in a bad way if you can’t hold your tuck so don’t rush forward unless you can.
3. Bridge with Abduction: The goal here is to kick on some other butt muscles! It’s a must that you stay tucked under so your back doesn’t chime in to compensate, you’re looking to firm up those outer hips in this exercise.
- place resistance band just above your knees.
- Assume regular bridge position.
- Keeping feet on the floor (flat), move your knees apart creating a V shape with your legs. You should feel it in the outside hips.
~If for some reason you don’t feel this in your outer hips (and you are tightly tucked under), move your feet closer or farther away from your butt.
4. Bridge with Mini March: The goal here is to have as little rocking movement as possible as you switch off lifting your feet, you’re working on pelvic stabilization. For the sake of your back, don’t let go of your pelvic tilt during this exercise.
warning: you will feel this in your low back if you let go of your PPT, please leave this exercise for later if necessary.
- Assume regular bridge position.
- Lift your right foot off the floor only 2-3 inches without losing your pelvic tilt.
- Now, set it back down and lift your left the same way. Be patient with your glutes, let them fire before taking the weight off of opposite foot.
- Ever so S L O W L Y, keep up this alternating movement. (I’m talking SLOW MO!)
- When done correctly, this is a demanding exercise because there is a lot to think about. It’s not unusual to keep starting over, so do what you need to to get in your reps.
- work up to 10-15 reps each
~Notice if one side is stronger than the other. If when you lift your right foot you have a significant shift, lefty butt is probably snoozing. The opposite is true as well. Whether you have a little shift or a big shift or not, just find out where you’re starting from and work from there. It’s exciting to get to the bottom line so you can help yourself get stronger because what the hips (glutes) lack, goes to the back!
5. Dead Bug Step 1: The goal here is pelvic stabilization. Your deep core muscles will be at work!
- Use a ball or wall if your back feels too vulnerable.
- Start on your back with your knees pulled gently into your chest (not pictured).
- Engage your abs and press your low back into the floor as you slowly bring your legs away from your chest. (Breath is tricky here- for now, just don’t hold it.)
- Gauge the distance you push out by listening to your back; if 90* is too far, keep them closer in. If too easy, go a bit further. (Feet need to be straight out from your knees though, and again- back firmly against the floor.)
- Press into the floor as hard as you can. Abs should be shaking if your pelvis is tucked and you are holding there.
- Keep pressed to the floor, abs contracted and try to get some deep breaths with abs contracted. The tricky breath is a big part of this!
- Hold 15-30 seconds
- Keep resetting the pelvis if it gets away from you; your back will let you know immediately!
~The real dead bug position is legs and arms in the air, I just like the name to help remember the position. There are so many great core exercises that are done from this basic position, like the compound exercises I briefly referred to above.
~This should be very challenging. You’ll know you’re doing it right if your belly is shaking and you’re not feeling the strain in your back. Here’s the quick (impromptu) video version.
***Only move on to Dead Bug Step 2 if your back can stay glued to the floor. This is such a foundation builder, it’s best to master before going to the next move!
6. Dead Bug Step 2- The goal here is to keep the pelvis very still as your legs move. (pelvic stabilization is a key component to core work.)
- Set up the same as Dead Bug 1.
- While you keep your left leg in place at 90*, very, s l o w l y- pretend you are going to dip your right heel in the water. Don’t let go of your pelvic tilt.
- Bring it back very slowly.
- Now, do the same with the left heel. remember not to change the angle at the knee.
- Keep resetting your pelvis if you need to. For most people, it is very challenging to keep your low back pressed into the floor and have your pelvis still.
- Alternating sides, do 10 repetitions super slow.
~When you can master this move, then your back can be more protected during compound exercise. The benefits again of compound exercise are, first, that you get your core work done during your upper and lower body work (when in correct positions) and second, your work out time can be shortened without taking away from your results.
7. Superman- The goal here is to strengthen the spinal muscles and help with your whole posterior chain (your backside.)
Lie face down on the floor with arms reached overhead. (Inhale)~Keep in mind that you will be doing that same posterior pelvic tilt here that you were doing in the dead bug (tucking your butt under.)
- Press your hip bones into the floor and squeeze your butt to help lift your arms and legs off the floor. (exhale)
- Eyes looking out in front of you just a tad; your neck stays in line with your spine as not to compress your neck.
- Think of lengthening your whole body when you do this, reaching arms as far one way and your toes pointing as far the opposite direction as you can.
- keep a nice rhythm going, up, down, up, down with breath. Keep resetting those hips as needed and be sure you’re “pinching a quarter” with those butt cheeks!
~In all honesty, the prone position (on our belly!) is probably the least comfy exercises, but they are vital to healthy posture. Learn to love them for a strong core and a more toned butt and back.
8. Pelvic Floor exercise: The goal here is to strengthen the pelvic floor; while doing your posterior pelvic tilt; combining all the squeezing 🙂
- Place a rolled towel or ball between your knees and another between your feet (to keep your knees and feet about hip-width apart).
- While squeezing enough to keep balls/towels in place, lie face down on the floor with knees bent to 90* and forehead resting on the back of your hands (this keeps your neck in line with your spine.)
- Press your hip bones into the floor (PTT!) while you simultaneously squeeze the balls/towels, trying to keep hips and knees glued to the floor.
- Keep resetting that PPT as needed, it’s a lot to think about and ask your body to do at one time!
~ This one is also much harder than it appears! There are many benefits from putting this in your weekly routine, but one of the best ones just might be better sex… just sayin!
My hopes are high for you that you’ll add these strengthening exercises into your routine so that you can have a stronger core and lessen your lower back pain. OF course, there are more than can contribute, but these are great starters for you.
Get your FREE at-a-glance version of these exercises here.
Hopefully, you’ll hop on the floor with me and give these a try. I have clients who have benefited more than they thought they ever could from making these part of their weekly schedule. I promise they are one of the most valuable things you can do for your core, no matter who you are. If you need more information on back pain and to see some great info. on some studies, this blog is filled with great stuff.
Remember that sharing is caring. If you know someone that wants to be in solution about their lower back discomfort or pain, please send this blog to them. The step by step instructions for some may seem silly, but for some, these details can make all the difference.
***I want to hear from you! Let me know how these exercises are helping you, whether or not you have low back pain. Also, I would love to get answers for you if you have specific requests, so please leave comments and questions below.
Thank you for spending your time with me and sharing my message as you see fit, I appreciate you very much!
Be playful, stay curious, and remember, with each procrastinating thought; It’s only a hassle if you say it is!
Smiling at you, Robin
Get the at-a-glance PDF
Exercise break-down pics make it easy to follow once you've learned the proper form.