These simple 8 back and hip exercises combat modern conveniences and desk jobs that keep many of us sitting down for several hours every day. Sitting for long stretches can cause low back and hip pain. In the low back, the quadratus lumborum and psoas major especially can get tight. In the hips there are several small muscles including the piriformis which tighten up and the glutes (especially the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus) get smashed under our body weight for long periods. This causes them to lose blood flow and grow weak and overstretched.
Poor posture is the mortal enemy of the low back and hips. When sitting in a chair, make sure you have a supportive back in the chair so you can lean back. If you find yourself slumping forward in your chair, grab a small pillow or towel and place it behind your low back to help encourage the natural slope of your low back, and a gentle lifting of your chest. When you find yourself in a stool or with no back support, make sure to sit up tall with your shoulders right over your hips. Roll your shoulders back and lower your chin so that your jaw is parallel with the floor.
We all tend to forget about practicing good posture when we get distracted and that is okay. Anytime you notice that you are slumping down or forward, just sit back up. Don’t get discouraged if this happens several times per day. If you keep practicing, you’ll build up your posture muscles. Over time your muscles and nervous system will remember to have good posture automatically more of the time. You can also try setting an alarm to go off every hour or so as a reminder, or you can write “POSTURE” on a sticky note and put it somewhere you will see it often at your desk or wherever you sit.
Hip exercises to strengthen the glutes, abdominals and back are great for helping combat the pain and also build better posture to boot! If you spend long hours sitting, make sure to stand up once per hour or more often if possible. Spend a minute or two walking around and roll your shoulders back. Take a few deep breaths and use this time to decompress your mind as well.
To strengthen the glutes and back, consider the following short exercise routine right before or right after a long bout of sitting:
Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and your knees pointed up to the ceiling. Push into the feet to lift the hips off the ground, creating a straight line from your knees to your chest. Make sure you are squeezing your glute muscles, sometimes after sitting we think we are engaging our glute muscles but they’ve actually gone to sleep. Don’t be afraid to reach your hands under your hips to check if your glute muscles are firing. I like to imagine I’m cracking a walnut between my glute cheeks, mostly because it makes me laugh but also because it helps get a better quality squeeze out of the muscles. Repeat 10 times.
Stay right where you are at the top of the hip bridge, this time complete 10 reps but make the movement much smaller, like a small pulse. The hips will only move 1-2 inches. Take it slow, one breath per pulse.
Choose your favorite version of side plank, either with both legs extended out to the side (as shown) or with one knee dropped. Lift your top leg away from the floor 10 times on each side.
Same exercise as before, just make the movement much smaller. Repeat 10 times per side.
Starting on all fours, exhale sharply to engage the low abdominal muscles. Keep them braced tightly as you float your right arm out in front of you (thumb facing up toward the sky) and your left leg out behind you (keep the hips square by pointing your pinky toe down towards the ground). Go slow and try to keep your torso as still as possible. Lower the right arm and left leg back to the floor, and repeat on the other side. Do a set of 10 on both sides.
Stay on all fours and arch your back, squeeze the shoulder blades together behind the back. Then round your back, imagine pressing your low back up towards the ceiling, curling and squeezing the abdominals underneath you. Repeat 10 times.
Pull the hips back to the heels, widen the knees out to the sides and lower your chest towards the floor with your arms stretched out in front of you and your hands touching the ground. Hold for 3 breaths.
With hands and feet on the ground, step back so that your hands are under your shoulders and you are creating a straight line from your feet to your shoulders. If this feels too intense to hold for 30 seconds, modify by putting your knees down and creating a long line from your knees to your shoulders. Hold for 30 seconds, up to 1 minute. Make sure the low back is not sagging. Exhale sharply to correctly brace the abdominal muscles and keep them tight even as you inhale and throughout the exercise.
While exercising, make sure to use good form even when you start to feel tired. The low back has a natural gentle curve that can get disrupted when we get tired. You’ll notice this if you find either 1. Your back starts to round forward, or conversely, 2. The back arches and the stomach stretches forward. If you notice either of these happening, bring your back back to a neutral position, right in the middle. Look in a mirror from the side, or ask your trainer to help you identify the neutral middle.
Make sure to let your trainer know about any pain you are feeling during exercise sessions. If you feel comfortable, tell your trainer about any treatments your doctor has prescribed as it relates to your training program. All this information will help your trainer make sure to curate your program to work around and limitations due to pain so you can stay active. Staying active and healthy is one of the best things we can do to prevent future pain as we age.
Remember that pain is a warning light. As you train, pay special attention to any areas that feel painful. Use pain as your guide for knowing when to stop a certain exercise or movement. Mike Boyle, one of the greatest trainers of our time said “No one ever got healthier, more mobile, or better by doing something that is painful.” A huge advantage of working with a personal trainer is that they can modify the exercise program on the spot to fit your exact needs, giving you the best possible training experience.
Louise B. Murphy, Charles G. Helmick, Todd A. Schwartz, Jordan B. Renner, Gail Tudor, Gary G. Koch, Anca D. Dragomir, William D. Kalsbeek, Gheorghe Luta, Joanne M. Jordan. (2010, August 14). One in four people may develop symptomatic hip osteoarthritis in his or her lifetime. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2998063/
Prevalence of Chronic Pain and High-Impact Chronic Pain Among Adults — United States, 2016 Weekly / September 14, 2018 / 67(36);1001–1006, James Dahlhamer, PhD et. all https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6736a2.htm
Freburger JK, Holmes GM, Agans RP, et al. The rising prevalence of chronic low back pain. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(3):251-258. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2008.543
The Basics of Hip Pain, By Diana Rodriguez, Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH, July 6, 2009, https://www.everydayhealth.com/hip-pain/the-basics-of-hip-pain
Michael Boyle, “Does It Hurt?” https://strengthcoachblog.com/2011/10/16/does-it-hurt-2/ Accessed January 28, 2021
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