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5 Exercises for Low Back (Muscle) Strain: Expert Recommendations

Written by Beth Holloway, RN, M.Ed and medically reviewed by TJ Snediker, DPT, TPI
2021-02-23

Ever experienced a minor fall and felt pain and stiffness in your lower back the next day? Or how about bending down to pick something up and wincing at that unmistakable, sharp pain? It’s the worst - and may be what’s called a back strain.

Back strains can be awful, but there are things you can do to prevent or recover from one. Here are 5 easy exercises to help you deal with the pain, stiffness, and swelling of a back strain. You’ll also find helpful information about back strains, common causes, symptoms, and ways to reduce your risk.

Exercises to Help with Back Strain

Here are 5 exercises for back strain that are recommended by experts:

Before starting these exercises, make sure to keep a few things in mind:

  1. Make sure you are pain-free, or your pain is tolerable. 

  2. Find a comfortable place to perform this routine.

  3. If you have severe pain, call your doctor.

Warm-up: Abdominal Tuck

Why it’s beneficial: 

It’s recommended that you warm-up before exercise. It helps with flexibility, improves blood flow, and enhances movement. The abdominal tuck increases your core body temperature. It warms up the muscles across the abdomen (transverse abdominal muscles) as well as the supporting tissue of the core.

Try it: 

  1. Lie on your back with both knees bent and your feet flat.

  2. Place one hand lightly on your belly (abdomen) and tighten your abdominal muscles, pulling them towards your spine.

  3. Make sure you are not holding your breath.

  4. Perform two sets of ten repetitions.

Modification:

If this causes any discomfort, sit or stand while performing it.

Core Marching

Why it’s beneficial: 

Your core includes the muscles of your abdomen, back, and pelvis. Research shows exercises that stabilize the core are more effective than traditional physical therapy exercises for reducing low back pain. Core marching works these muscles in a way that is gentle and pain-free.

Try it:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees and hips bent, feet on the floor.

  2. Tighten your abdominal muscles and lift one knee towards your chest.

  3. As you lower your knee, raise the other one towards your chest in the same motion.

  4. Continue alternating between legs.

Modification:

If this causes you any discomfort, try sitting instead of lying down. 

Single Knee to Chest 

Why it’s beneficial:

Having tight or shortened “glutes” forces your lower back muscles to overwork The single knee to chest is designed to stretch your gluteus maximus muscles.

Try it: 

  1. Lie on your back with your knees and hips bent.

  2. With both hands, reach in front of one knee and pull it towards your chest, holding for 20-30 seconds. 

  3. Repeat on the other side. 

Modification:

If this causes you any discomfort, place your hands behind your knees and pull them towards your chest while holding your hamstring.

Child’s Pose 

Why it’s beneficial:

After a back strain, this popular yoga pose helps to ease pain and improve overall flexibility. Child’s pose stretches the low back muscles, including the lumbar extensors.

Try it: 

  1. Kneel on a mat with your toes together and your knees hip-width apart.

  2. Reach forward and extend your hands beside your torso with your head resting on the mat.

  3. Hold for 20-30 seconds.

  4. Perform two sets.

Modification:

Sit in a chair and lean forward until a gentle stretch is felt. 

For more back stretches, see How to Stretch Your Back.

Bird Dog Hip Extension

Why it’s beneficial:

The bird dog hip extension helps to stabilize your lower back as well as your abdominal muscles.

Try it: 

  1. Kneel on a mat with both hands down and arms shoulder-width apart.

  2. Start by engaging and tightening your core muscles.

  3. Slowly straighten one leg behind you while maintaining a flat back.

  4. Return the straightened leg back to the starting position.

  5. Repeat on the other side.

  6. Perform 10 repetitions, while holding each for 20-30 seconds. 

Modification: 

If this causes any discomfort, lift your leg only several inches off the ground rather than reaching full extension.

Strains

Back pain, especially low back pain, is very common. The cause may be a back strain

A back strain occurs when there is a stretch, pull, or tear in one of the muscles or tendons that support the spine. The pain may range from mild to severe, depending on the seriousness of the injury. 

Symptoms

The symptoms of back strain include pain, stiffness and loss of motion, swelling, difficulty walking or bending, and muscle spasms.

Pain

People with back strains have pain - it’s often the main symptom of a muscle or tendon strain. The location of the pain depends on the area involved.

  • A strain in the neck or upper back may also affect the shoulders or other areas

  • A strain in the lower back may also include pain in the buttocks (gluteal muscles or “glutes”) and hip muscles

Stiffness and Loss of Motion

Muscle or tendon tightness or stiffness is another symptom of back strain. The stiffness may make it difficult to move the back. 

Swelling

An injury to a muscle or tendon may result in swelling. The amount of swelling depends on the severity of the injury.

Difficulty Walking or Bending 

Back strains may make it difficult or uncomfortable to bend. It may be difficult to walk with more severe muscle/tendon strains.

Muscle Spasms

At times, a back strain may involve painful muscle spasms. This is when the injured muscle cramps or tightens.

Risk Factors

According to the National Institutes of Health, certain factors can put a person at a higher risk for a back strain. 

Lack of Exercise/Physical Activity

In general, lack of exercise and physical activity is unhealthy. Weak back and/or abdominal muscles increase the chance of back injuries, including muscle and tendon strain.

Extra Body Weight

Carrying extra weight adds stress to your musculoskeletal system - your muscles, bones, and supporting structures. In particular, the added stress affects your back and weight-bearing joints (hips, knees, etc.) increasing the chance of injury.

Smoking

The risks of smoking are well known - heart disease, cancer, etc. Smoking also affects musculoskeletal health by decreasing blood flow and oxygen. In smokers, injuries are more common and take longer to heal

Causes

Minor accidents, injuries, and incorrect (or lack of) movement can cause back strains. Some common causes include:

  • Slipping or other quick movements

  • Improper bending, lifting, or twisting (for instance, when lifting heavy objects)

  • Overusing the back (for instance, while golfing or playing racquet sports) 

  • Underusing the back (for instance, sitting for long periods of time) 

Diagnosis

Back strains are typically diagnosed based on your symptoms and how the injury occurred. 

Your doctor may recommend x-rays or other imaging tests to rule out the possibility of a herniated (bulging) disk or another more serious condition.

Treatment

Medicines

There are both prescription and over-the-counter medicines (OTC) used to treat back strain. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed by your doctor. A common OTC is ibuprofen, which helps lessen both pain and inflammation. There are also many different OTC creams, gels, and patches that you can apply to the painful area.

Dietary Supplements

Various supplements can help relieve the pain of muscle strain and other back problems. One example is turmeric, which helps lessen inflammation and swelling.

Other Treatments

Applying ice and/or heat to the painful area can help. You can use an ice pack covered with a towel or cloth. Heat can also be effective - even a warm bath or shower can help lessen pain. You may also want to try massaging the area. Although you can go to a professional, a simple, gentle massage from a friend or family member can provide relief.

Exercise and movement help to heal muscle strains. Although doctors often recommended days of bedrest in the past, it isn’t helpful. It is a myth that you have to rest for extended periods and avoid activity after a back injury. In fact, that is usually not recommended. 

How Goodpath Can Help

A back strain can be painful and frustrating. These movements are designed to lessen your discomfort from the strain.

In addition to these exercises, there are other solutions that can help ease your back pain. 

Take Goodpath’s personalized assessment today. After analyzing your answers, we will build you a personalized treatment plan based on your medical history, your symptoms, and your lifestyle.