Worst & Best exercises for BACK PAIN + The ab exercise to stop doing

Certain exercises can cause back pain, back injuries, and can make back pain worse. Below are exercises to avoid and why, and which exercises you can do instead, that will increase strength and should not cause back pain.

Always check with your doctor and physical therapist to confirm which exercises you should not do, and for how long you should avoid them. Doctors tell their patients not to lift weights or do squats, which many patients believe to mean that they cannot do squats or weight lifting ever again; Doctors are neglecting to explain that those exercises need to be avoided for only six months (or, for however long).

Heavy weights are not for everyone, but most people can exercise safely with light to medium weights, with correct form. Having an experienced, qualified fitness coach who will spot you is a good investment, so consider hiring a trainer to prevent future injuries.

If you’re cleared to exercise, keep reading so you know which exercises you should avoid, and which ones you can do, that shouldn’t bother your back.

Exercises that target the quadriceps (muscles on the front of the legs) and the glutes (hips and butt), that can cause back pain, injuries & make back pain worse include:

back squat
  1. Back squats. Even with proper form, added weight compresses the spine. When people lower too fast into a squat, they don’t have proper control, and cannot keep their abs engaged, moving the low back into an anterior tilt position, which increases the chances of injury. Going too low in a squat causes the ugly butt-wink, where the low back rounds and tailbone curves under, which is unhealthy for the lower back. Holding the bar unevenly, from having varying mobility in one shoulder compared to another, can cause twisting of the spine and misalignment.
  2. Leg press. In this seated position, the low back is rounded, and the added weight stresses the spine.
  3. Pistol squats. Just like a squat that’s lower than 90 degrees, the lowest part of the squat, where the tailbone is tucked under and rounded, can injure the lower spine.
  4. Machines like the hack squat place weight and pressure down the shoulders and onto the vertebrae. This extra weight compresses the spine. This is one reason why it’s a good idea to hang from a bar to decompress the spinal column after weighted leg exercises.
pistol squat
hack squat

Instead, try:

  1. Box squats (or chair squats)
  2. Step-ups (don’t let your leg raise above 90 degrees to prevent your tailbone from rounding)
  3. Wall-sits (wall-sit variations video is below)
  4. Heel-elevated goblet squats
  5. Single-leg squats
heels elevated squat

Exercises that target the hamstrings (the muscles on the back of the legs) and lower back that can cause back pain, injuries & make back pain worse include:

  1. Conventional deadlifts
  2. Straight leg deadlifts
  3. Sumo deadlifts

While all deadlifts include a hip-hinge variation, when both feet are firmly planted onto the floor, the low back does the majority of the lifting. The above three deadlifts are not worth the risk since there are deadlift variations that can strengthen the low back, hamstrings, and the glutes, that are easier and less risky.

Instead, try:

double leg kettlebell deadlift
  1. Double leg kettlebell deadlifts (don’t go too low, and don’t go too heavy)
  2. Single leg deadlifts
    • Kickstand variation, where the heel is raised on one leg (make sure to switch with each side).
    • Balance with one leg
    • Hold onto a sturdy object with one hand
single leg dead lift (kickstand variation)

Exercises that target the latissimus dorsi aka lats (the largest back muscle) that can cause back pain, injuries and can make back pain worse include:

  1. Bent-over dumbbell rows
  2. Bent-over barbell rows

When performing a bent-over row, you have to master the hip-hinge, and keep the abs engaged the entire time. Not only is this tricky, but it puts extra pressure on the low back.

Instead, try:

  1. Seated rows
  2. Seated lat pull-downs
  3. Standing dumbbell rows in a lunge position, with one hand on a counter or raised bench

Whenever you are lifting weights, control and proper form should be the top priority. When people swing and jerk weights they cannot control, this is not only cheating, but swinging and jerking weights can lead to pulling and/or tearing a muscle or a tendon, cause a bulging disk, or “throwing your back out.”

Abdominal exercises that can cause back pain, injuries, and can make back pain worse include:

ab crunches
  1. Crunches compress the spine and only work the upper ab muscles.
  2. Any ab exercise where you are leaning back or lying on the floor, can cause pain in the tailbone area, and when the abs get tired, the back typically goes into an anterior pelvic tilt position, which can aggravate and injure the spine.

Instead, try:

  1. Front planks. Planks should not hurt your low back if you perform them correctly. The key to prevent low back pain when performing planks, is to make sure to squeeze your butt the entire time: this will prevent your low back from arching and will keep your abs engaged.
  2. Side planks. Keep your shoulder active, your elbow at 90 degrees, and push your forearm into the matt, with your shoulder back and down (don’t let your shoulder rotate inward to prevent shoulder pain).

I created a video, below, to showcase all of these exercises, so you can see how to perform box squats, step-ups, wall-sits, heel elevated goblet squats, single leg squats, double-leg kettlebell deadlifts, three different single leg deadlifts variations, rows in a lunge position, and elbow planks.

Below is a video of seven wall-sit variations:

Below is a plank workout, that you can watch and follow-along to.

Let me know if you have any questions and add your experience with back pain and/or the exercises I mentioned in this post, in the comments below.

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