4 Strength Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Increasing back strength is super easy but often made complicated by physical therapist and personal trainers. For some reason the back is avoided and the focus in only on strengthening the muscles AROUND the back. This is obvious and I should not even have to mention it but direct back strengthening is the best way to improve back strength. Here are 4 exercises I use in the clinic daily to improve back strength and decrease pain.

Favorite Strength Exercises for Lower Back Pain

Click any to be taken directly to it’s instructions.

These exercises should be performed with minimal pain, and you should not be worse off after a session. That would mean the weight is too heavy or your back is too irritated.

If your back hurts too much and you need exercises strictly for pain management, start with these exercises to manage pain from a herniated disc.

#1 Standing Founders for low back strength

Good for: basic exercise to increase back strength

  • Stand up straight, arms at your side
  • Push the hips back, let the knees bend
  • Bend forward as far as you can
  • Raises the arms up as high as you can
  • Perform 3-5 sets and HOLD each rep for 3-5 slow controlled breaths (inhale nose, exhale thru pursed lips = 1)

This is where i start people if they have too much back pain moving through a full range of motion with a good morning (next exercise), hesitant to load the back, or I need to teach them to actually extend the lumbar spine/low back.

It also works as a screen to see how much shoulder range of motion you have.

Easier versions of the exercise (examples in next video)

  • Prisoner style (easier)
  • Arms across chest (easiest)

#2 Seated Good Morning

Good for: increase back strength through larger range of motion, improve hip mobility

  • Sit on the edge of a surface with legs wide but knees still lined up over toes
  • Cross your arms on your chest, spread the ground apart with your feet
  • Inhale through the nose as you bow forward as far as you can
  • Exhale as you return to upright
  • Spread the ground apart through the ENTIRE rep. This ensures you are using the hips to control the motion
  • Complete 2 sets of 15 reps.

This is the most basic exercise to load the back and the video shows three variations to increase the challenge. Be sure you can comfortably do 2 sets of 15 without issues before moving to the next level. You can also use a weight plate across your chest, or put dumbbells on the ground in front of you.

Are barbell variations good to increase back strength?

good morning strengthening exercises for low back pain
Common Barbell Good Morning Variations

Here’s my take on common barbell variations:

  • Bar on neck – AVOID this one, the physics aren’t good and it puts your neck in a weird position
  • Low bar – better but most don’t have the shoulder mobility for this position
  • Safety Bar – also better but most don’t have a safety bar

Conclusion: low bar and safety bar are good variations, but not for everyone. Holding weight in front of you is the simplest way to load it.

#3 Half Kneeling Chops

Good For: increase back strength of deeper layers of muscles that control rotation of the spine as well as entire body

  • Start in half kneeling with the outside knee down (open side out)
  • Drive the foot into the ground to create tension
  • Use a high cable and pull down and across your body
  • ONLY move your arms. The rest of your body doesn’t move
  • 2 sets of 12-15

This is an “anti-rotation” exercise – the weight is trying to rotate you, you don’t let it. The deeper muscles of the back and abs are thought to be more active in these types of exercises, but if you move heavy enough weight all your muscles will work. True isolation is impossible and actually not wanted anyway.

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#4 Half Kneeling Lifts

Good For: increase back strength of deeper layers of muscles that control rotation of the spine as well as entire body

  • Start in half kneeling with the inside knee down (open side in)
  • Drive the foot into the ground to create tension
  • Use a low cable and pull up and across your body
  • ONLY move your arms. The rest of your body doesn’t move
  • 2 sets of 12-15

This is basically the #3 Chop just from the opposite direction. Using Chops and Lifts ensures you’re making the back stronger from all directions.

Final thoughts on strength exercises for back pain

You can think of the back as having 2 layers, and these exercises target both of them. Direct back work is THE way to make the low back stronger, and I also find it helps reduce back pain more than hip or abdominal strengthening. When your bicep hurts, you exercise the bicep. Same with any other muscle in the body. For some reason we forget this with back pain.

Ready to fix your back pain?