Around 3 million Australians suffer from back pain. Most people will have experienced some kind of temporary or chronic pain and I’m no exception. Treatment is different depending on the cause, however most physiotherapists and specialists advise exercise and strengthening to manage the symptoms and hopefully eliminate the problem entirely.
Some of the main causes of pain, especially in the lower back, are tight hamstrings and/ore weak core and posterior (back) muscles. The following exercises can help to address these issues however they are best done under supervision or with approval from your treating physician and should not be attempted if the pain is severe – this can send your muscles into spasm and will not help. Start slow and listen to your body rather than pushing through when something doesn’t feel right.
1. Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
Stretches hamstrings, back and calves. Strengthens shoulders, core and arms.
Feet at hip width distance and knees bent to relieve excessive pressure on lower back. Your spine should be long and straight with the heart moving back towards the thighs. Shoulder blades away from the ears & tailbone pointing toward the sky. Ensure your weight is spread throughout the whole hand, not just the heel so spread and press your fingers into the mat. The eyes of the elbows face each other and the spine is long. Take 5-10 long deep breaths in downward facing dog.
2. Forward fold (Uttanasana)
Restorative. Stretches back & hamstrings
With the feet hip width apart, fold at the hips and rest belly on thighs. You might need to bend your knees a lot! Relax the neck and let the weight of the head gently deepen the stretch. Hold for 5-10 long breaths and perhaps sway from side to side.
3. Half Splits (Ardha Hanumanasana)
Stretches hamstrings, hips & lower back
From a kneeling position, bring one foot out in front. Flex the extended foot, drawing the toes towards your body but keeping a micro-bend in the knee. Straighten the hips, perhaps drawing the extended hip back in line with the other. You may need to place a cushion or double up your mat under the supporting knee. Keep the spine long and core engaged, reaching the hear towards the feet rather than bowing down towards the knee. Hold for 10 to 15 deep breaths.
4. Wide Leg Forward Fold (Prasarita Padottanasana)
Stretches inner thighs & lower back
Set the feet apart – choose a distance that suits your body. Point the toes inwards slightly and softly bend the knees. Bring the hands to your hips or interlace them behind you and inhale to extend then fold forward on the exhale, keeping the knees bent. Tilt the tailbone towards the sky and let the spine be long and head heavy. Stay here for 10 breaths, perhaps walking the hands towards each foot for a few moments each side. You’ll notice one of my shoulders has far more movement than the other due to injury. You might find the same thing with your body – just accept it! Life isn’t perfect.
5. Warrior III (Virabhradrasana 3)
Strengthens ankles, calves, back & shoulders. Stretches hamstrings & improves balance.
From standing, bring the hands to prayer and kick the right foot out in front of you. On your exhale, start to lean forward and simultaneously kick the foot slowly behind you, keeping the back straight and the lifted thigh in line with the torso. Keep breathing and ensure the lifted leg remains active and the hips stay squared. If you are unable to bring the torso parallel to the ground, try bending the grounded knee or simply allow the shoulders to be higher than the hips – it doesn’t have to look perfect to work. Hold and breath for 5-10 breaths each side.
6. Cat/Cow Pose (Bitilasana/Marjaryasana)
Stretches abdominals, spine, shoulders and back
Come to a table-top position with the joints stacked – wrists under shoulders, knees under hips. Spread your fingers and press the mat away, engaging the shoulders and core.
Cat – on an exhale, start to round the spine, looking toward the navel and tucking the tailbone under.
Cow – on an inhale, let the belly drop towards the floor, lift the tailbone and crown of the head toward the sky, pressing the heart forward between the shoulders.
Repeat 5 times each.
7. Boat Pose (Navasana)
Strengthens core and hip flexors and thighs
Start with from a seated position with your knees bent and toes touching the ground. Open and lift the chest, widening the collar bones and drawing the shoulder blades down the back and toward the spine. Straighten the elbows and reach your arms forward. Lean your torso back until you feel your abdominals engage. Keep the navel drawing inwards and slightly arch the back, elongating the spine. From here you can hold or to add on, lift the feet, either keeping the knees bent or straightening the legs for an extra challenge. Turn the ankles slightly so the soles of the feet face outward. Hold for the count of 5 to begin with, gradually extending your stay in boat pose as your core strengthens.
8. Thread the Needle (Sucirandhrasana)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor. Hug one knee into your chest. Cross the other ankle over the opposite knee, as if you’re sitting cross-legged. Let the left knee relax away from your torso then thread your hands and grab your bottom knee, drawing it toward your chest while keeping the spine on the ground. Keep both feet dorsi flexed throughout to help protect knees. Hold and breath for 15-20 breaths each side.
9. Extended Table Pose
Strengthens core and back, improves balance
From table pose, extend one leg behind you. Engage the thigh muscles and dosiflex the foot, drawing the toes towards you and pointing out through the heel. Draw your navel towards spine and square the hips, ensuring the lifted side is neither drooping towards the floor or lifted towards the sky. Start to reach forward with the opposite hand, extending the hand and foot in opposite directions while keeping balanced using your core muscles. Let the neck be long and set your gaze near your grounded hand. Keep breathing deeply and hold here for 5-10 breaths. To add on, try bringing your arm out to one side and your leg to the other – this makes your core work harder to maintain balance.
10. Upward Facing Dog (Urdva Mukha Svanasana)
Opens chest, tones extensors on back, strengthens upper body, light backbend
From lying down, face down, start to press the tops of your feet into the mat and engage the thighs. The knees may lift off the mat. With the hands placed under shoulders and fingers spread wide, start to press the mat away and lift the shoulders and chest off the mat. The back portion of the shoulder (posterior deltoid) opens the chest, drawing the shoulders back and stretching the pectoralis major. Turn on the glutes to stabilise the pelvis and tilt it downward, pressing the pubic bone into the ground. Keep the elbows bent or if you’re feeling comfortable and have more range, straighten the arms and let the hips lift off the mat, keeping the legs straight and strong. Hold for 3-5 breaths.