Most older adults of all backgrounds experience low back pain at some point in their lives. Low back pain can affect anyone from sedentary office worker to recreational exerciser to Olympic athlete. There are countless reasons why we can experience low back pain, including disc herniation, muscle weakness, muscle tightness, injury, arthritis and more. There is much clinical research still needed to fully understand why some people experience low back pain and others don’t, how to manage it when it arises, and how to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
One researcher making major contributions to the field is Dr. Stuart McGill. He’s one of the world’s leading researchers on spinal mechanics and low back health.
In his decades of research, he’s developed what he calls the “Big 3” exercises to relieve and prevent back pain. One of them is the “curl-up” exercise we show you below. In another article on low back pain we’ve shown you his other two moves: side plank (also called the side bridge) and bird dog.
The goal of this movement is to build endurance and control of your spine. It trains the abdominal muscles without moving your cervical (upper) or lumbar (lower) spine.
Lie on your back with your legs straight. Bend your right leg and place your right foot on the floor near your left knee. Place your hands under your low back, allowing you to keep a natural curve in your spine. Curl your head, neck and upper back off the ground. Try not to move your neck; keep it in a neutral position without tucking your chin or letting your head fall back. Hold for 7-10 seconds, then lower. Complete 5-10 repetitions, then repeat with your left leg bent.
2. Side Plank with Leg Lift
Side planks are a very important movement for low back health. They strengthen your abdominals (especially the obliques), quadratus lumborum (on either side of the spine, connecting the lumbar area to the pelvis), as well as the quad, hip and lateral parts of the glute muscles. When functioning well, these muscles all work together to maintain our balance and mobility as we age.
This is a more advanced version of the regular side plank, placing more emphasis on balance, as well as on the glute muscles, which are especially important for low back health.
Prop yourself up with your right forearm on the ground. Stack your left foot onto your right, and ensure your right elbow is directly under your right shoulder. Lift up your body so only your right forearm and right foot are touching the ground. Keep your core engaged and your entire body in a straight line. Now lift your left leg toward the ceiling, hold for a second, then return to the start position. Complete repetitions, then switch sides. Aim for 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions.
3. Barbell Deadlift
Deadlifts are one of the best ways to strengthen the low back muscles — when performed with correct form. They strengthen the entire posterior chain, including the upper back, glutes and hamstrings. I get all my older clients to incorporate deadlifts into their regular training, unless they have contraindicating conditions like a herniated disc. The barbell deadlift is the “classic” version of the exercise, but there are many variations in equipment, foot stance width and overall form. Using dumbbells allows you to more easily adjust the weight compared to a barbell, and they’re easier to store if you workout at home.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms straight, holding a barbell in front of you, close to your body. Make sure your back is straight and shoulders are in a neutral position. Hinge your hips behind you and bend your knees, keeping your back flat and your head in line with your spine. The barbell will travel along your body (keep them almost touching as they travel downward); stop when you’re halfway down your shins. Now press through your heels, focusing on using your hamstrings and glutes to pull yourself back up to the start position.
Aim for 3 sets of 10 repetitions with a weight that feels challenging at about 7 reps. You might feel your low back muscles working, but if you feel them tweaking or causing discomfort in any way, check that your back is straight and you’re using correct form.
Strengthening your core muscles (which include the low back) is an important step in preventing low back pain, but it’s not the whole picture. You need to also make sure you have good body mechanics throughout the day and while exercising. Ensure you have good posture and good hip mobility, and work with a physical therapist to correct any potential movement dysfunctions or muscle imbalances.