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Around one-half of all Americans suffer from back pain at least once a year, and up to 80 percent of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives, according to the American Chiropractic Association. Although back pain is individual and certain activities may be detrimental to one person and not another, the goal of exercise should always be to strengthen your back muscles to reduce long-term pain without hurting your back in the process. Check with your physician before starting an exercise regimen if you've previously suffered from back pain.
Back pain is often caused by having weak glutes and hamstrings, according to Tim Keeley, physiotherapist at Physio Fitness in New South Wales, Australia. To strengthen these muscles, start with activation exercises such as glute bridge raises, where you lie on your back and lift your hips up, or side-lying clams, performed by lying on your side and raising your leg in the air, advises corrective exercise specialist Mike Robertson of I Fast Training in Indianapolis. Once you've mastered these, move on to strength exercises such as step-ups, single-legged deadlifts and back extensions. You may wish to avoid barbell moves such as heavy squats and deadlifts, as they have a high degree of spinal loading.
Although upper-body training is less likely to have potential complications than leg training, you should still exercise caution. Standing exercises such as overhead presses may cause you to arch you back, as could heavy bench pressing or barbell rowing. When performing your exercises, maintain a flat back position and avoid overextending your lower back. For pressing exercises, sit down and keep your back pushed into the bench. You may also wish to experiment with machine training, so as to keep the stress off your spine and lower back muscles.
A strong core and midsection are vital in reducing symptoms of lower-back pain and improving posture. But traditional core exercises such as situps and crunches may be problematic, as they force you into over-extension and over-flexion, according to Tony Gentilcore, coach at Cressey Performance in Boston. Instead, work your core with stabilization exercises, advises Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. These include plank variations, curl-ups and cable rotations.
Any exercise can potentially cause or exacerbate back pain, so it's vital you check with your health care provider or physiotherapist before embarking on a strengthening routine. If you're in the early stages of rehabilitation, then some simple body-weight exercises, along with low-impact cardio such as walking or swimming may be a better choice. Work closely with a trainer to ensure you're using the correct technique and not putting undue pressure on your back. Always use perfect technique and don't attempt to lift weights that cause you to use less than optimal form.