The Best Moves for a Healthy Back

Before you pop another Advil, consider this: Exercise is better for the long-term relief of back pain than drugs. A sports-medicine doctor, a physical therapist and a Pilates teacher pick these specifically targeted moves for a healthy back.
Photo by Casper Nichols

By Amy Schlinger

It’s probably not much consolation, but if you suffer from back pain, you’re not alone. Eighty percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point during their lives—and 20 percent suffered from it just last year, according to the CDC’s most recent National Health Statistics Report. But the best remedy isn’t a pill—it’s exercise, which will help current back pain and keep it from coming back.

To keep your back strong and healthy, we asked three experts for the most effective exercises to keep your back healthy and pain-free.

The sports medicine doctor recommends: plank

Why it helps: “This strengthens and stretches the core muscles,” explains Jordan Metzl, MD, sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

How to do it: Start in pushup position, arms straight, hands stacked directly under shoulders, feet extended out behind you resting on toes, core tight and back flat, body in a straight line from head to toe. Hold for 15 seconds.

The physical therapist recommends: single arm push downs

Why they help: This move “strengthens your transverse abdominis unilaterally, which is the ‘weight belt’ of the body,” explains Dan Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S, co-founder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York City. “It will take pressure off of your lower back and strengthen your core.”

How to do them: Wrap a resistance band around an anchor that’s above head height (a pole, sturdy rod or tree will work). Grab ahold of both sides of the resistance band with the right hand, elbow bent, next to your side. Keeping elbow glued to side, push right hand down to extend arm fully. Slowly raise back up. Repeat. Do 12 reps, then switch arms.

The Pilates teacher recommends: cat/cow

Why they help: “The slow arch of the ‘cow’ stretches your neck and the front of your torso, while the curve of the ‘cat’ helps to relieve stress by lengthening the spine and improving the circulation to the discs between the vertebrae,” says Hayley Thorpe, director of Norma Jean Pilates in Sag Harbor, NY. “Your abdominal organs will also be massaged, stimulating both digestive and reproductive systems in your body.”

How to do them: Start on all fours in tabletop position, hands on the ground directly under shoulders, knees stacked directly under hips. Keep back flat and look up towards ceiling. Hold for 2 seconds. Contract core, curve shoulders and back as you look down towards the floor. Hold for two seconds. Repeat. Do 12 reps..