Lumbar stabilization exercises can benefit almost everyone, but there are a few important things to know before you try these exercises at home.
Maybe you have a constant, nagging small pain in your low back. Or perhaps you’ve had chronic low back pain for as long as you can remember. Or one day you randomly bend over to pick up something, and your back seizes up.
Around the world, low back pain is the leading cause of years of living with a disability, according to a
Low back pain can cause you to dramatically slow down or restrict your everyday life.
The low back is designed to be mobile and to stabilize us for the load that life presents us with. There are many possible reasons for low back pain, though.
Healing often requires consultation with various health and medical professionals, who will consider the whole body’s structure, alignment, and movement patterns.
Adding lumbar stabilization exercises to your exercise routine can be very effective for maintaining a healthy and supple low back and managing chronic pain.
Lumbar stabilization exercises are exercises that strengthen the trunk to support the low back. These exercises aim to decrease or manage joint instability — which can lead to pain, spinal conditions, or damage to neurological structures.
While most lumbar stabilization exercises focus on strengthening the surrounding muscles of the abdomen and back, other important considerations include:
Lumbar instability can result from insufficient core muscular recruitment or weakness of the deep spinal muscles. Combine that with the forces acting on your spine every day, poor posture, and a sedentary lifestyle, and you’ve got the perfect storm of back pain risk factors.
It’s important to note that seeing a doctor about your pain should be your first step. The causes of low back pain are so varied, and some conditions require medical attention before beginning any type of exercise.
Still, re-education and better motor control are often needed to release overactive muscles and engage smaller, deeper muscles that support the spine. That’s where lumbar stabilization exercises come into play.
Building well-rounded strength over time, while rebalancing your posture and refining movement patterns can go a long way toward helping you live with less pain.
Benefits of lumbar stabilization exercises include:
- a decrease in lower back pain
- improved posture
- improved core stability
- an increase in neuromuscular control, strength, and endurance of spinal muscles
- a cost-effective maintenance tool
Often, combining lumbar stability exercises with other conditioning methods can be very effective for decreasing pain. A study from 2015 found that gluteal strengthening exercises along with lumbar stabilization exercises were most effective for decreasing low back pain.
Chances are, if you’re interested in lumbar stability exercises, your doctor or physical therapist has recommended them for rehabilitation or fitness. You should always follow their recommendations for integrating lumbar stabilization exercises into your daily routine.
Especially when in acute pain, follow your physical therapist’s or doctor’s advice on whether it’s a good time to begin lumbar stability exercises. If larger movements are painful, it may be best to focus on diaphragmatic breathing and gentle abdominal bracing as a first step.
When your pain has decreased and you get the go-ahead from your doctor or physical therapist, you can add regular lumbar stabilization exercises to your fitness program for overall strength and maintenance. These deep core exercises benefit everyone, even if back pain is not a concern.
You’ll learn many lumbar stabilization exercises in movement modalities such as Pilates or physical therapy. When working with a trained instructor or therapist, you’ll begin with basic, foundational exercises, and they’ll teach you plenty of options for progression as you become stronger.
The primary muscles you’ll strengthen to enhance your lumbar stability are:
- transverse abdominus
- pelvic floor
- erector spinae
- quadratus lumborum
- internal and external obliques
The secondary, or supporting muscles, for lumbar stability are:
- gluteal muscles
When you’re first starting out, it’s highly recommended that you work with a professional trainer, physical therapist, or Pilates instructor. They can analyze your movement patterns and body as a whole, and they can choose exercises with progressions suitable to your unique needs.
Diaphragmatic breathing and abdominal bracing
- Lying on your back, with your knees bent, place your hands on either side of your ribcage.
- Inhale through your nose, and feel the breath move beneath your hands and in the back of your ribcage. Imagine your ribcage as a balloon — as you take air in, it expands in all directions.
- Exhale, and feel your hands sliding toward one another as your ribcage narrows down toward the floor and into the center of the body. Aim to keep your neck, shoulders, and chest relaxed, and feel the back of your rib cage connected to the floor.
- Maintain your neutral pelvis (neither tucked nor overly arched). Inhale again.
- Then exhale, imagining a thick belt around your low back and low abdominals. Gently tighten and lift the belt as you feel your deep core engage. Aim for a gentle contraction in these muscles, without gripping or holding on to excess tension. You should be able to have a conversation with someone while contracting.
- Lying on your back with your knees bent and your feet parallel and hip-width apart, inhale.
- Exhale, bracing your abdominals as described above. Engage your glutes and push your feet into the floor to lift your hips off the ground.
- Inhale as you release the position back down. Aim to keep your shoulders and neck relaxed throughout. Try to keep from overarching your back.
- Complete 8–10 reps.
Side plank on knees
- Start from a seated position on your side, on one hip, with your legs bent and stacked next to you. Bend your elbow and lower your forearm to the ground next to you.
- Exhale to push your forearm into the floor and lift your hips into the air.
- Inhale to lower your hips halfway.
- Exhale to lift your hips up again.
- Repeat 8–10 times, then inhale as you lower your hips all the way down with control.
- Repeat everything on the other side.
- Start on all fours, with your knees directly underneath your hips and your hands underneath your shoulders.
- Aim for a neutral position in your spine.
- Exhale to draw the abdominals in and up. Without shifting your weight or arching your back, lift one leg behind you and lift your opposite arm in front.
- Breathe and hold the position for 3 slow counts.
- Inhale with control to return your leg and hand to the mat.
- Complete 6–8 reps and then repeat on the other side.
Lumbar stabilization exercises are an effective way to manage low back pain and joint instability. These exercises strengthen and support the structure of the back and your body as a whole.
They can be progressed to a more advanced level, though it’s often a good idea to talk with a doctor or physical therapist to see what you are ready for. It’s important to consult your medical team and work with a professional to find an individualized program suitable for your unique needs.
In time, with the right program and practice, you’ll likely be on your way to less pain, more core strength, and better quality of life.