Customized Exercises for People with Back Pain

 lisa-snow-2by Lisa Snow

Most people’s reason for not exercising, like lack of time, is easily remedied with simple solutions. For example, you can use more effective exercises to get more work done in less time, or have a personal trainer come to you instead of spending time commuting to a gym.  But what if what’s  stopping you from getting in shape is something more serious, like back pain?

At EFT Personal Training , we have worked with clients who have a wide range of back problems and related issues, including slipped discs, herniated discs, scoliosis, broken vertebrae, sciatica, and more.  We help clients get back the strength they had prior to the injury, regain their ability to do daily activities, and return to regular exercise without re-injuring their back. When clients come to us for help losing weight, we focus on exercises that are gentle on their back.  We are neither doctors nor physical therapists, and do not treat clients for these health challenges.  Instead, we help our clients get back in shape during or after they undergo treatment with a physical therapist, chiropractor, or other medical professional.  We focus on helping clients regain their range of motion, balance, and core stability before moving on to the more traditional fitness goals of strength and endurance.

While commercial gyms assign you to whichever trainer has an open time slot on the day you want to come in, we make every effort to match you with the one of our trainers who has the most experience with your particular injury, your age group, and/or your goals.

Some clients choose to pursue fitness only, while others choose to add massage therapy as well.  Clients who want the synergistic benefit of both training and massage can either work with their own massage therapist and come to us just for training, or they can work with our licensed massage therapists.

Although the exercises recommended for each client would vary dramatically depending on the diagnosis, how long ago the injury occurred, and what kind of treatment they have already undergone, here are a few safe moves to get you started.

90-90 Neutral Back

Lie on your back on a mat or towel.  Set your calves on a chair or stool, so your whole body looks like a tipped over chair.  (Folding chairs are the perfect height for some people, while others might need to put a pillow on top of the chair to make it high enough to be comfortable.  An exercise bench works just as well as a chair.)  You should have a 90 degree angle at the hip, and another 90 degree at the knee.  Stretch your arms out wide to the side, like a letter T, with your palms facing the ceiling.  Relax in this position for 2 to 5 minutes.  There may be some mild discomfort as your back, hips, and shoulders get used to being in alignment; this is normal and will go away with practice.  If there is actual pain, stop immediately, but resume the next day.  Pain doesn’t mean this exercise isn’t for you; it usually means you just stayed in the position a little too long.  Some clients can complete the whole 5 minutes on day one, while many other clients find it takes them 3 or 4 months to work up to just 2 minutes.  It’s very important to go at your own pace.

This and other easy home exercises can be found in The Pain Free Program: A Proven Method to Relieve Back, Neck, Shoulder, and Joint Pain by exercise physiologist and corrective exercise expert Anthony Carey, MA .  This book, which often sells for less than $15, has beautiful black and white photos and clear instructions for each move.  You can go through the easier exercises on your own, or bring a copy to your doctor or therapist and ask them which exercises are right for you.


Lie on your side, and lift your body so that only your elbow and feet are touching the ground.  For an even easier version, bend the knee so only the knee and elbow are touching the ground.  For more advanced, leave one hand and one foot on the floor.  Slowly, gradually work your way up to 30 seconds per side (for just one set), or work up to ten sets of just 10 seconds each.  Be sure not to bend your back while lifting up into this exercise, and keep your back straight as you come back down as well.  While some people bend the back on purpose during the side plank to make the exercise harder (and others bend the back accidentally because they don’t know how to lift up properly), back pain patients should avoid bending the spine during the side plank.



This classic exercise has become even more popular thanks to the pioneering research of Dr. Stuart McGill , a world renowned back injury researcher from the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Clearly, no exercise or group of exercises can replace the care of an experienced physical therapist or chiropractor.  You should wait to begin working with a post-rehab personal trainer until you have gotten the green light from your doctor or therapist.  These alignment and stability exercises can compliment the work you are doing with your health care team.

Lisa Snow is a personal trainer with EFT Personal Training LLC.  She specializes in post-rehabilitation, seniors, people with chronic pain, and clients with physical disabilities.  Lisa is certified by ACE, NSCA-CPT, FMS, and TRX Sports Medicine, and is a graduate of New York University and the National Personal Training Institute. 


Missed last month’s column? Read it now:

What Should People Look for When Hiring a Personal Trainer?
How do trainers know what program is right for their clients?
Who Benefits the Most from a Personal Trainer?
Motivate Yourself to Better Health
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