The 3 Exercises You Need For a Healthy Back and Strong Core

POPSUGAR Photography | Benjamin Stone
POPSUGAR Photography | Benjamin Stone

When I was 7, my dad decided to sign me up for my first soccer team. I was completely uninterested, but I agreed to at least try it out. After my first practice, I never looked back! In the years to follow, I would go on to join every team possible playing volleyball, basketball, and soccer and running track and field. I was drawn to sports and found that I could be as intense and competitive as I wanted, and I also really enjoyed winning. Eventually, I narrowed down my participation to soccer and track and field and would go on to become a Division 1, All-American sprinter.

Track and field opened up many doors and allowed me to travel the world, meeting lifelong friends. Another great thing about being an athlete was that I learned the importance of taking care of my body inside and out. I worked with world-class training and coaching staffs who made sure I was in tip-top shape both on and off the track in order to compete at an elite level. But, inevitably, due to all my years of training, my body has gone through a ton of wear and tear.

When my lower-back pain came out of nowhere in November 2017, I was completely caught off guard. Through all my years of training, the worst "injury" I had experienced was a tight hamstring from overuse and raspberries from slide tackling. Now I was facing sporadic spasms and the inability to walk more than one mile without pain. I found myself struggling to train clients and could no longer do the things I had done my entire life, like Olympic lifting, plyometrics, and sprinting.

Back pain is estimated to affect 80 percent of Americans at some point in their lives, with 31 million Americans experiencing back pain at any given point in time, according to the American Chiropractic Association. The good news is back pain can be alleviated with the proper approach and diligence. Dr. Stuart McGill, a world-renowned professor of spine biomechanics, created the "Big Three" exercises to improve the endurance of the muscles that surround your spine and protect your back. These exercises allow you to strengthen your core while maintaining stability and control without irritating your back. McGill shared in his book Back Mechanic that these moves "are able to prevent painful joint micro-movements for several hours."

Back pain can be frustrating to deal with, but these three movements, done daily, will have you on your way to a stronger core and a healthier back!

click to play video

Modified Curl-Up

  • Lie down on the floor with both hands underneath your lower back, supporting the lumbar spine — this will help prevent the lower spine from flattening against the floor and minimize stress on your back.
  • Keep one leg extended and bend the other leg, bringing the foot in line with the opposite knee.
  • Brace your core to prevent movement (no pain should be felt here), and lift the elbows off the ground.
  • Maintaining a neutral neck and spine, slightly lift your head and shoulders off the floor.
  • Hold for 10 seconds, and then lower back to the starting position.
  • Set one: five reps with an eight- to 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.
  • Set two: three reps with an eight- to 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.
  • Set three: one rep with an eight- to 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.

McGill notes that this move is not the same as a crunch and that those with back pain should avoid crunches. After day one, see how you feel and add one repetition to each set. If there is leg/butt pain, bend the knee on the side with pain.

(You can see this exercise performed in the video right around the 1:30 mark.)

Side Bridge
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Side Bridge

Both the side bridge and side plank are great for building strength in the transverse abdominis and other muscles used to stabilize the spine. If you cannot hold a side plank or if engaging the abdominal wall causes pain, start with the side bridge.

  • Lie on your left side with the knee bent at a 90-degree angle and your elbow underneath your shoulder.
  • Push your hips forward, lifting your thighs off the ground. Rest the right hand on top of the right hip, and hold for 10 seconds.
  • Be sure to keep your knees, hips, and upper body aligned. If you experience discomfort in your shoulder, place your right hand over your left shoulder with your fingers spread apart, and pull your right elbow down across your chest.
  • Set one: six reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.
  • Set two: four reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.
  • Set three: two reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds.

If you can maintain a side bridge without pain, progress to the side plank.

Side Plank
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Side Plank

  • Begin by lying on your left side. Bring your left elbow directly under your left shoulder. Engage your core, press your left elbow into the floor, and rise into side elbow plank.
  • Place your top foot in front of your bottom foot, or stagger your feet if your balance feels off.
  • If you feel discomfort in your bottom shoulder, place your right hand on your left shoulder and pull the left elbow down across the chest.
  • To make this more challenging, place your right hand on top of your left hip.
Bird Dog
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Bird Dog

Bird Dog spares the spine of high compressive loads and targets not only the lower-back muscles but also works the hip extensors, like the glutes and the hamstrings.

  • Begin on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  • Pull your abs in to your spine. Keeping your back and pelvis still and stable, reach your right arm forward and left leg back until they are parallel to the floor. Don't allow the pelvis to rock side to side as you move your leg behind you. Focus on not letting the rib cage sag toward the floor. Reach through your left heel to engage the muscles in the back of the leg and your butt.
  • Return to the starting position, placing your hand and knee on the floor. Hold for six to eight seconds.
  • As you begin to progress, add a rep to each set.
  • Set one: four reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat on opposite side.
  • Set two: three reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat on opposite side.
  • Set three: two reps with a 10-second hold. Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat on opposite side.