Simple, Safe Exercises For Your Back

Simple, Safe Exercises For Your Back
February 6, 2012 No Comments » Back and Pelvis, Exercise, Managing Common Conditions, Rehabilitation Brian Fulton


A term that you may have heard used around fitness is core strength. However, when you try to find out exactly which muscles are the core muscles, you find that everybody has a different list. Suffice it to say that they are generally the deeper muscles in the torso and hips rather than the surface “pretty” muscles that some bodybuilders focus on. The reason that we want to develop core stability is to maintain a solid foundation that allows us to transfer energy from the centre of the body out to the limbs. Experts agree that developing core strength will also keep you in good stead in terms of injury prevention. What follows here are some very “safe” back exercises that you can do with no equipment other than a floor mat or carpet. Dr. Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, developed these exercises to develop core strength while protecting the spine from injury.  They involve little movement (static muscle contractions) that help you build protective strength in your midsection and endurance in your back muscles with minimal cost to your spine. This means that these exercises can even be done after back injury. They may seem easy at first glance, but to get the most from these exercises you need to pay close attention to technique.

Side Bridge

Method: Lie on your side, bend your knees 900 and prop yourself up with your forearm. Your lower arm should be straight out from your side with your hand in a fist. Hold your body like a plank with your hips, pelvis, and chest in a straight line and firm as a single unit.

Number of Repetitions: First, focus on simply holding the position with good form, and then work toward 3 sets of 10-second reps on each side. To add difficulty, straighten your legs so that you are pivoting form your feet (as in the picture). As you progress, add more repetitions, not longer durations. (Your body does not learn to stiffen when exhausted.) To add complexity, roll your torso as a block to alternate sides. Fast repetitions of torso turns make the exercise even more difficult. Make sure, however, that you roll with no spinal movement or rising of the hips.


Having measured the spinal loads of crunches and sit-ups, McGill learned that technique is crucial for these exercises to be productive and not destructive. A curl-up, he says, should not bend your lower back or cause your hip flexors to compress the vertebrae.

Method: Lie on your back with one knee bent, your hands under your lumbar curve (small of your back), and your elbows lifted. Consciously pause to first stiffen your abdominal muscles, and then lift your head and neck together from the breastbone. Don’t poke your chin forward. Note that only a small lift of the torso is needed.

Number of Repetitions: Hold for 7 or 8 seconds, breathing steadily, with your abs braced. Do as many as you can without losing form.

Bird Dog

Method: This exercise creates a lot of strength around your midsection. “I have some of the best athletes in the world doing it,” McGill says. On your hands and knees, extend one arm and the opposite leg and hold the pose for 10 seconds. Make sure your abdomen is fully braced, as if you’re about to take a hit to the gut. McGill recommends using all the musculature of your upper and lower body, in fact, from your forearms to your gluteal (bum) muscles. “It is critical that there be no motion in your back,” he says. To add complexity, make a tight fist with your outstretched hand, and draw a square with it without moving your spine.

Number of Repetitions: McGill believes in “training for endurance without getting tired.” So begin with 4 repetitions of 10-second holds and then decrease the number of reps in each set to burn out your remaining strength as you maintain form. “You don’t try to hold a bird dog for 30 seconds,” he says. You build up endurance by increasing reps, not duration.

For more information on Dr. Stuart McGill and his training techniques check out his book “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.” You can order it from Dr. McGill’s website.

I also recommend checking out Dr. McGill’s videos on YouTube. Typing in Dr. McGill into You Tube’s search engine will yield multiple results, all of which should give you insight into back fitness, back pain, and avoiding popular exercises which are, in fact, counterproductive to the integrity of your back.


About The Author
Brian Fulton Brian Fulton has been a Massage Therapist in Ontario Canada since 1999. His approach toward health and the human body is broad and holistic in nature. Brian is also the author of The Placebo Effect in Manual Therapy: Improving Clinical Outcomes (available on Amazon)