What Exercises Can Cause Lower Back Pain?

In our last blog we wrote about whether it is safe to exercise with lower back pain or not. We spoke about some types of exercises to avoid and which ones are helpful. This week we get specific about 5 of the most common exercises that can cause low back pain, and some great alternatives to these.

The data has shown very clearly that exercise is beneficial for lower back pain, but many people are scared to go ahead with their workouts in case they make their back pain worse. Lower back pain exercises can provide wonderful relief and can help your condition improve in the long term, but the wrong moves can send you right back to the ER. Here are our top 5 exercises to avoid and their more beneficial counterparts.

1. Sit Ups

This classic go-to for core strengthening may not be as good for your low back as you think. Instead of helping your low back pain, this move can increase pain by putting pressure on spinal discs and potentially causing injury. Often hip muscles get used more than stomach muscles, so this exercise is not going to have the maximum benefit in the long term.

Try: A Partial Crunch

Partial crunches can help strengthen your back and stomach muscles. Proper form prevents excessive stress on your low back. Your feet, tailbone, and lower back should remain in contact with the mat at all times.

To perform a partial crunch:

  • Lie with your knees bent and place your feet flat on the floor

  • Cross your arms over your chest or put hands behind your neck for more support (if you put your hands behind your neck, make sure that you aren’t using your arms to pull your neck off the floor and that you aren’t leading with your elbows)

  • Tighten your stomach muscles and lift your shoulders slightly off the floor

  • As you raise your shoulders, breathe out

  • Hold for a second, then slowly lower back down

  • Repeat 8 to 12 times

2. Standing Toe Touches

Toe touches are another exercise that should be avoided. Not only can toe touches aggravate sciatica, but they can overstretch your hamstrings and further injure the muscles in your lower back.

Try: A Knee To Chest Stretch

Doing a knee-to-chest stretch can help elongate the lower back and can relieve pain and reduce tension.

To perform the knee-to-chest stretch:

  • Lie with your back on the floor

  • Keeping both feet flat on the floor, bend your knees

  • Use both hands to pull one knee in towards your chest

  • Hold your knee against your chest for 5 seconds (your spine should be pressing into the floor and your abdominals should be tight and contracted)

  • Return to the starting position and repeat with your opposite leg

  • Repeat with each leg 2–3 times twice a day

3. Double Leg Lifts

Double Leg Lifts are a great way to strengthen your core but they are a big no-no for those with lower back pain. While you definitely want to incorporate strengthening exercises into your daily routine to restore strength to your lower back, if your abdominal muscles are not very strong, this exercise will be too intense and can make your lower back pain much worse.

Try: The Bird Dog

The Bird Dog uses opposing movements of your arms and legs and that makes it one of the best ways that you can learn how to use your core muscles to support and stabilize your lower back. An important thing to remember, when you are performing the Bird Dog exercise, is make sure that your arms and legs never go higher than where your low back position dictates. You want to be careful not to overextend and reach too high.

To Perform The Bird Dog:

  • Get on your hands and knees on the floor

  • Squeeze your abdominal muscles by drawing them in to your belly, contracting them

  • Slowly lift one leg and extend it directly behind you, while keeping your hips level

  • Take your opposite arm and lift and extend it in front of you, reaching forwards

  • Hold your position for 5 seconds, then repeat with the opposite leg and the opposite arm

  • Repeat on each side 8 -12 times

4. Straight Leg Deadlift

The Straight Leg Deadlift is one of the best lower body exercises that works all the major muscles groups in one movement. So, while this is a favorite of personal trainers, it is another movement that is not recommended for those with lower back pain and weak core muscles. If this move is not done correctly, with the right amount of support, it can make your existing low back pain problems much worse. When your back is weak, your spine can round out during the movement which puts the work in your lower back, instead of in your core and glutes. Typically, those with lower back pain should avoid this move completely.

Try: Bridges

Bridges work your gluteus maximus (glutes), which is the large muscle of the buttocks. The glutes are one of the most important muscle groups in the body, and strong glutes can help support your lower back. This muscle is also commonly used when you do squats.

To perform a bridge:

  • Lie on the ground with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart.

  • Press your feet into the floor, keeping your arms next to your sides.

  • Slowly raise your buttocks off the ground until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.

  • With your shoulders resting on the floor, squeeze and hold your glutes for 3 seconds.

  • Slowly lower the buttocks to the ground and rest for a few seconds.

  • Repeat this exercise 15 times and then rest for 1 minute.

  • Do 3 sets of 15 repetitions.

5. Seated Russian Twist

This exercise if one of the worst for those with lower back pain. Your lower back is designed primarily to bend forward and backwards, to flex and to extend. It is not really designed to rotate, which is why twisting motions are some of the most common causes of back injuries. It is a sure way to hurt your back. With a seated Russian Twist, there is a very high level of twisting along with disc compression which is a bad combination for back injuries.

Try: Seated Lower Back Rotational Stretches

The seated lower back rotational stretch helps to relieve pain, while working your core muscles and strengthening your lower back.

To perform the seated lower back rotational stretch:

  • Find a chair (that doesn’t have arms) or a stool and sit on it with your feet placed flat on the floor

  • Slowly twist from your waist to the right, using your core. Keep your spine tall and your hips facing squarely forward

  • Place your hands behind your head, or you can place your left hand on your right knee to support or deepen the stretch

  • Hold this position for 10 seconds

  • Repeat the exercise on the left-hand side

  • Repeat on each side 3–5 times twice a day


Exercise is recommended for low back pain by guidelines around the world and the North American Spine Society issued their guidelines and stated that “It is suggested that, for patients with acute low back pain, those that exercise more at baseline and use exercise to facilitate recovery are predicted to have better functional outcomes over time than patients who do not exercise or use bed rest to help with recovery.”

While it is always best to consult with your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise program, these exercises have been found to be safer for those with lower back pain and can help to facilitate recovery. If you would like more ideas on exercises to complete with lower back pain the Mayo Clinic has more ideas with their article on low back pain exercises.

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