A Safe Lower Back Pain Workout Plan

It’s extremely frustrating to desperately want to work out but can’t because…You’re so scared you’ll end up in pain, or you’re already in pain from your last workout.

When I was suffering from a herniated disc injury, I had pain radiating all through my hip and leg. My hip constantly felt like it was on fire. Walking on the treadmill for a few minutes would trigger the very painful spasms. I had to limp my way to the change room and sit there for 5 minutes for it to calm down.

I loved to exercise but every time I’d get to the gym, I felt this deep fear in my heart. I wasn’t sure if this workout was gonna set me a few weeks back. It was just the worst.

Throughout the past years, I learned what works and what doesn’t work for my body. And there are a few key elements and techniques I learned also as a coach that has helped me in my healing journey. I still use them. And I’ve been able to work out with weights, consistently, for the past 4 years without pain. 

Every once in a while, when I violate one of these things, and I can certainly feel its effect in the middle of my workout. I take a step back and start over. I’m not kidding… There have been many times, where I had to stop everything and get back to properly warming-up before continuing (more on warm-ups below).

Disclaimer: Before I continue, I have to insert an important disclaimer. If you’re experiencing sudden or recurring pain and you haven’t already seen a medical professional… Please consult with your physician first and rule out any serious disc conditions. It’s just good practice to check.

Hey, if you’d like to watch a step-by-step training video that explains everything in this post, scroll down until the end.

How To Workout With Back Pain

I’m going to explain how to work out if you have chronic back pain. If you follow these steps, you should be able to workout safely without a post-workout flare-up. Don’t be surprised if you also notice a reduction in your pain level.

Remember that exercise isn’t bad. You need to move to keep your body healthy. But understanding how to properly workout is the key to staying pain-free.

The Warm-up:

The most important phase in your workout is going to be your warm-up. I’m not talking about walking for a few minutes on the treadmill. A proper warm-up should get your body (muscles, ligaments, and joints) ready for more load (weights) and challenge. 

I prefer to start with foam rolling the tight overactive muscles that can inhibit proper movements. These muscles tend to be the PSOAS, the TFL, and the Latissimus dorsi. I then move into activating the stabilizing muscles that support and stabilize the spine and hip joints when you add load. These muscles are the deep core muscles and the glutes. 

Examples of warm-up exercises

  • Side-to-side walks
  • Bodyweight bridges
  • Toe taps

The Workout Plan

Because you have chronic back pain, you need to tackle your workout plan a little differently. (Although in my opinion, all people should follow the same rules)

These are techniques that’ll ensure you maintain a healthy spine all throughout your fitness journey:

  1. Progressive overload
  2. Choose 3-4 exercises maximum and focus on good quality repetitions
  3. Add challenge by adding more reps and set, not by adding more exercise. Only add more exercises when you master the current ones

Lifting Weights With Back Pain:

Listen, you can lift weights without triggering severe back pain, but you have to keep the following key points in mind:

You have to start with very light weights and progressively add more weights. You should always stay below the pain threshold and prioritize doing the exercises with proper form. 
Practice the hip hinge and core bracing before adding load on any movement that involves bending over. An example of such movement is the deadlift, squats, lunges.

Increase your rest periods to 2 minutes between sets if you are training with weights. I’ve been applying longer rest periods into my workouts and I noticed that I work out better when I allow my body to recover in between sets…

I can perform the next set with more energy without compensating. I think increasing rest periods is a good way to avoid muscle strain and injury because you avoid muscle fatigue that can lead to compensation and injury. 

Check-in with your body between each set. This is linked to my last point about taking longer rest periods. It’s important to drop the weights and move around to feel how your body is responding to the exercise. Mindfulness will play a huge role in keeping you pain-free. You will feel when something is off, when to take a break, and when you’ve done enough for the day.

Try to choose exercises (or modifications) where you’re able to keep the load as close to your body as possible. This is an important one. Exercises like side lateral raises or kettlebell swings put extra stress on your spine because you’re moving the weight away from the body.

Keeping the load as close to your body’s center of gravity will help you exercise safely without triggering lower back pain.

Always keep your core braced until you release the weights and come back up. This is another very important technique, most people don’t do, that can easily trigger lower back pain when working out. Make sure you keep your core tight and engaged all throughout the movement. This includes the last repetition when you drop the weights down. After you drop the weights and come back up, take a deep breath and then release the brace. 

Leave abdominal work until the end to not fatigue your core. Yes activating your core is part of your warm-up. Keeping your core engaged should be part of the whole workout. However, doing abdominal isolation work should be left until the end…

Don’t start your workouts with crunches or any other exercise that’ll only work the outer core unit (visible abdominals). Leave any isolation exercises until the end so you don’t fatigue your self and sacrifice form as a result.

When Should You Rest?

Rest has its place. You want to give your body time to recover, heal, and regenerate (especially after a lower back injury or a hip injury). The inflammation phase lasts up to 3 days. After that, it’s highly advised you resume exercise. It’s not healthy to just stay in bed for longer than 3 days even after an acute injury (1). You can click here for more information about acute injuries and when to get back to exercise.

How To Safely Workout With Back Pain 

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