4 Exercises to Help Strengthen Your Back

If you’ve ever had a backache, you know how it can derail a perfectly good day. So how do you help avoid that kind of discomfort and inconvenience in the future? One key way: Build strength in your core — the crucial muscles that support your spine.

Start your strong core program

If you’ve had a back injury, always get your doctor’s OK before you start exercising.* Once you have the green light, consider starting with these back and abdominal exercises.

Aim for eight to 12 repetitions of each move. If you can’t do that many at first, start with fewer and build up gradually over time.

Remember: “No pain, no gain” has no place here. If these exercises are painful, stop right away and talk with your doctor.

1. Cat-cow warmup. This may help loosen the joints of the spine and restore flexibility to the spinal muscles and ligaments.

  • Start on all fours, hands and knees on the floor. Knees are hip-width apart. Hands are below your shoulders, with the elbows straight but not locked. Look down at the floor.
  • As you exhale, let your head move toward your chest while rounding your back like a cat (spine toward ceiling). Hold for 10 seconds.
  • As you inhale, let your stomach move toward the floor (arching your lower back). Allow your shoulder blades to move together. Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Alternate between the two positions.

2. Bird dog. This exercise may be good for the upper and lower back and hamstrings (muscles in back of the thigh). Be sure to warm up first.

  • Start on all fours, hands and knees on floor.
  • Extend one leg and the opposite arm so that they are parallel to the floor. Hold this position for seven or eight seconds. Then repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
  • Alternate between the two positions.

3. Pelvic tilt. You can do this exercise by itself to help strengthen your lower back — or along with the other exercises here. Do it on the floor or a firm surface.

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Leave a space between the small of your back and the floor.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles so that the small of your back presses flat against the floor. Hold this position for five or six seconds. Then relax, allowing a space again between the small of your back and the floor.
  • Alternate between the two positions.

4. Abdominal contractions. These may help build abdominal muscles, which support and protect the lower back.

  • Lie on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Rest your hands on your belly below the ribs.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles while pulling the abdomen in and down. Continue to breathe while holding the contraction for five seconds.
  • Release and repeat.

Does aerobic exercise help the back?

Yes, it may. Aerobic exercises — like walking, biking or swimming — keep the heart pumping, work large muscle groups and help keep the back strong. Try walking during your lunch break, biking with your family or going for a swim. Endurance exercises like these may help improve blood flow to the back — and strengthen and relax the back muscles without jarring them.

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What to do next

To help protect your back, be sure you know these six steps to lifting safely. Go to uhc.com/liftsmart.


*For safety’s sake, talk with your doctor before significantly increasing your activity level.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical or other advice. Talk to an appropriate health care professional to determine what may be right for you.

Last reviewed June 2017

© 2017 United HealthCare Services, Inc.