The 7 best exercises if you have lower back pain

a photo of a man holding his back
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If you’re suffering from lower back pain, we don’t need to tell you that it can affect all parts of your life. Whether you’re a runner or a cyclist, a sore lower back can prevent you from doing the sport you love, as well as making everyday tasks a little more uncomfortable. 

Yet if, like millions of other Americans, you’re finding the toll of sitting down all day is having a negative impact on your back, we’re here to help. While you should definitely consult your doctor if you’re struggling with long-term lower back pain, research has found that strengthening certain muscles can prevent and alleviate lower back pain. 

In addition, targeted exercises can increase the blood flow to the lower back area, which can help reduce stiffness. Read on to take a look at the best exercises to try if you have lower back pain. And be sure to see our guide on the best exercises to do if you have sciatica

We’ve also hand-picked the best exercises to do if you sit down all day, and the best exercises to do to strengthen your knees (plus, your sleep setup can make a big difference – here are the best mattresses for back pain). 

How to do a glute bridge

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1. Bridge exercises

Bridge exercises largely target the glutes, which in turn stabilize and support the lower back. To do a bridge, lie on your back on an exercise mat (we’ve found the best yoga mats that double as exercise mats if you’re looking to invest) with your knees bent and your feet pressed into the floor. Squeezing your glutes, raise your hips up to the ceiling until they form a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement before slowly lowering back to your starting position. 

To progress the exercise and make it more challenging, put a dumbbell or barbell on your hips. (We’ve found the best adjustable dumbbells for home workouts here). 

an illustration of a woman doing a spinal twist

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2. Lower back twist

If you do suffer from lower back pain, this one will feel great and can relieve tension and tightness in the lower back. To do the spine twist stretch, start by lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Keeping your torso pressed into the floor, bring one knee up towards your chest, and drop that knee down to the opposite side of the body. At the same time, turn your head in the opposite direction to the knee. Hold for a few seconds before returning to your starting position and switching sides.

an illustration of a woman doing the superman exercise

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3.  Supermans  

This exercise is great at targeting the back extensors, which run alongside the spine, and help with good posture and pelvic support. To do a superman, lie on your belly on your exercise mat, stretching both arms and legs out from your body. Engage your glutes and raise both arms and legs off the floor, aiming for about six inches. You should feel a stretch in your lower back. Hold the pose for a couple of seconds before lowering back to your starting position. Repeat 10 times.

To make the exercise harder, flutter the arms and legs up and down when they are raised off the floor, as if you are swimming. 

an illustration of a woman doing a side leg lift

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4. Side leg raises  

Side leg raises activate your hips, abs, and lower back muscles, so they're a good exercise to target the midsection of the body. To do side leg raises, start by lying on your side, with your legs and hips stacked on top of each other. Bracing your core, flex the foot of the top leg, and slowly raise it up towards the ceiling to about shoulder height. If you feel unbalanced, you might find it easier to slightly bend your lower leg. Pause at the top before lowering the leg back down. Keep the entire movement slow and controlled, and aim for three sets of 10 leg lifts on each leg. 

To make the exercise harder, add a resistance band above the knees to increase the resistance, add ankle weights, or hold a dumbbell against the top leg as you raise and lower it. You can also increase the repetitions, or add some pulses to the top of the movement.

an illustration of a woman doing a plank with a leg lift

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5. Plank with leg lift 

The plank is a killer exercise that targets your body from head to toe, but is great at working the abdominal muscles and the lower back. For this exercise, the additional movement of the legs in this exercise increases the intensity, but if it’s too much, just hold a regular plank. 

To do a plank with a leg lift, get into a plank position, with your weight on your elbows or your hands pressed into the floor. Engage your core, thinking about sucking your belly button into your spine, and raise one leg off the floor. Pause for a few seconds, before lowering your leg back down to the floor, and repeat on the opposite side. 

an illustration of a woman doing the birddog exercise

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6. Birddog 

A birddog exercise works the abdominal muscles, the lower back, and the glutes. To do a birddog, start on all fours, with your bodyweight on your knees and your hands. As you reach your right arm forward, extend your left leg out behind you. Pause here, before lowering them back down to your starting position and repeating on the opposite side. Keep your core engaged for the entire exercise.

how to do the cat/cow yoga pose

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7. Cat/Cow stretch 

This stretch is a brilliant way to strengthen and move the lower back. To do the cat/cow stretch, get onto your hands and knees, with your knees hip-width apart. Make sure your hands are in line with your shoulders, and your knees are stacked underneath your hips. Engaging your core, take a deep breath in and arch the back, pulling your belly button into your spine. 

Hold at the top of the movement for two or three breaths — you should feel a stretch in your spine and lower back. Then move into the cow part of the stretch by lowering your belly to the floor, lifting your sit bones outwards, and raising your head and neck to the ceiling, rounding your spine. Keep moving between these two stretches for a few minutes each day. Read more about how to do the cat/cow stretch here. 

Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.