Do’s and don’ts for back exercises

Posted on 4 July 2017

If you suffer from back pain, you are not alone. Lower back pain is a prevalent cause of disability across the globe, affecting more than 460 million people*.

‘In fact, back pain affects most of us at some point in our lives,’ says Dirk Malan, a physiotherapist at Mediclinic Bloemfontein.

What causes back pain?


For some sufferers, back pain can be hereditary and include genes predisposing them to disc degeneration, herniation or other painful conditions such as arthritis, skeletal irregularities and osteoporosis, says Serena Chutergon, a physiotherapist at Mediclinic Newcastle.

‘If you suspect you fall into this category, consult a healthcare provider to discuss predisposing factors and how to minimise your risk,’ Dirk advises.


‘Although back problems may run in your family, it might put you at only a slightly higher risk for back problems later in life,’ says Serena. She adds that there are many other risk factors for developing back pain, including being overweight, smoking, overstrenuous workouts, lack of physical activity and even a bad mattress or stressful lifestyle.


Sports injuries such as strained muscles, sprained ligaments, fractures, bulging or ruptured discs and even muscle spasms can all cause back pain.

Types of back pain

Dirk says back pain can be split into two pain categories: acute and chronic.

In general, chronic bad back health is caused by, among others:

  • poor posture, both in and out of work
  • weak abdominal stabilisers due to lack of exercise
  • lifting and handling of heavy objects
  • repetitive actions done over a long period of time.

Acute lower back pain, on the other hand, is mainly as a result of injury to the tendons, muscles, ligaments, joints, or discs,’ Dirk explains. Usually, these are mainly sports-related injuries, but they can also occur from everyday activities or overuse of a certain muscle or tendon. The pain is caused when inflammation is triggered by an injury.

‘Exercising when you have chronic back pain can help you feel better and prevent worsening of the back problem, but it’s very important to start slowly, gradually building up intensity and frequency,’ Dirk advises.

Mix it up when exercising for back health 

 Sufferers of a bad back should opt for low-impact exercises such as yoga, pilates, swimming (especially back stroke), walking and cycling.

Serena advises that you focus on a good mix of exercises that help stretch the back, such as those that target the hamstring, knee and chest regions, as well as exercises that strengthen your core, like bridges and planks. Abdominal exercise gained by leg lifts or mountain climbing are also effective.

If you suffer from lower back pain, it’s best to avoid these exercises:

  • high-impact aerobics
  • weight-lifting
  • sit-ups and crunches
  • spinning with a rounded back
  • repetitive jumping, burpees or back twisting

You should also consult a physiotherapist to assess core strength before taking up long-distance running, sports-specific activities like football, and group exercises like CrossFit and Boot Camp.

Protect your back

‘Always lift and carry objects close to your body, bend your knees and hips (not your back), and never twist and bend at the same time,’ Serena advises.

In addition to exercise and careful lifting, correct posture is a simple but very important way to maintain the structures in the back and spine.

Evaluate your environment

‘You cannot start too early to get your children into the habit of looking after their posture. Encourage exercise and regular study breaks, and evaluate study areas such as chair and desk height,’ says Dirk.

‘The best way of showing children to maintain good posture is for parents to demonstrate it by having good posture,’ adds Serena.

For adults, the work environment remains key and should be adapted to help manage back pain. Avoid slumping, hunching over the desk, and walking with your shoulders hunched up, says Serena.

‘Always use a chair with a backrest, sit with your feet flat on the floor or on a footrest, and ensure that you change your position every few minutes,’ she concludes.


*Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 310 diseases and injuries, 1990–2015: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study.


Published in Exercise

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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