Research continues to show that the best treatment for back pain is exercise. But what do you do when exercise hurts your back instead of helping you?

What most people do when exercise hurts their back is they stop. They just wait for the pain to go away – and start the cycle all over again. It’s not the best strategy. Instead, why not figure out why exercise can hurt your back and do something about it?

Here are five reasons why exercise might hurt your back instead of helping.

It’s the wrong kind of exercise

While the research isn’t wrong about exercise and back pain, the type of exercise you choose is important. For example, walking is generally considered one of the best exercises for people with back pain. But there are certain types of back pain where walking turns you on. In these cases, it doesn’t mean walking is “bad” for you – and it doesn’t mean you have a serious problem. Many times this just means you need a different type of exercise first that gets you back to normal walking. The same goes for strength training and core training. Exercise is good for back pain – but if it infuriates you – don’t be quick to blame the exercise. You may just be doing things in the wrong order. Working with a back pain specialist can help minimize this and ensure you’re doing the right exercises at the right time – and it won’t make you sore.

Stability training is introduced too early

Stability training is an important part of back pain recovery – but I often see it introduced too early – and usually before good mobility is fully restored. Mobility is something you always want to look at first. If you don’t have full mobility in your spine, there’s a reason. And when your spine doesn’t move well, you risk developing compensatory movement patterns that irritate structures in and around your spine. When it comes to stability training, there is often resistance or load involved. The last thing you want to do is add load to the spine that is already compensating and irritated. It’s a surefire way to pump up your back and why exercise might hurt you instead of helping you.

You don’t activate your core

Knowing when and how to properly activate your core is different from having a strong core. You can have the strongest abs in the world – but if you can’t use them when they count – it’s useless. Knowing how to properly activate your core is essential when you exercise, but especially when you have back pain. If you don’t activate your core properly when you lift weights or perform complicated movements that require good coordination, you put yourself at risk of injury. The ability to properly activate your heart is developed through motor control training. This is where we teach your mind how to recognize and activate specific muscles, during specific activities, so that it eventually becomes a habit. If your back hurts constantly every time you exercise or try to strengthen your core, you may not have the ability to turn it on when it counts.

You are not breathing properly

Not breathing properly can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of your exercise routine and hamper your ability to perform an exercise correctly. As mentioned earlier, knowing how to activate your core is crucial when exercising, and to properly activate your core, you need to be able to breathe properly. Your deep core is made up of four parts: your deep abs, your deep back muscles, your pelvic floor, and your diaphragm. Your diaphragm is what controls your breathing. Let’s say you hold your breath when you exercise. When this happens, it means your diaphragm is not expanding or contracting the way it needs for your deep core to be fully functional. Plus, when your diaphragm isn’t working as it should, it adds unnecessary strain to both your back muscles and your discs. If you’re out of sync with your breathing and timing it incorrectly, that’s another reason why exercise could be hurting your back instead of helping you.

You are using an inappropriate form

The final, and most common, reason exercise can hurt your back is because you’re not doing it right. There are many people who think posture and form don’t really matter. But they do. If you lift weights, especially frequently and repetitively, you want your spine to be in proper alignment. It might not hurt the first time you lift with bad form, but it will hurt after several weeks or months when you get to your 100th rep. The same goes for bodyweight exercises. Just because you’re not adding external load to your spine doesn’t mean you can’t make it worse by doing something with bad form over and over again. This is where I see most people getting into trouble. If you’re going to exercise – and you want to exercise every day – do it with proper form and posture or it’s going to catch up with you and keep your back buckling.

If exercise is currently hurting your back instead of helping you, it may be due to one of these 5 reasons. Get expert help to determine which one it might be. Because at the end of the day, exercise is really good for your back. If done correctly, on time, and in the right order, it will help your back instead of hurting it.

Dr Carrie Jose, physiotherapist and Pilates expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To get in touch or receive a free replay of his back pain and sciatica masterclass, email him at [email protected] or call 603-605-0402.