Your Core’s Got Your Back! Back »

Written by Anne Sawyer under the direction and review of Tara Shafrath (former SDSU Extension Health & Physical Activity Field Specialist).

The spine is a support structure for the back, and a complex system of muscles that attach to the spine reinforce its strength and stability which keeps our bodies upright and mobile. Back pain is most commonly caused by strains to these muscles. Muscle strain is often induced because of weak core muscles which increases the amount of stress being placed on the spine.

How do I strengthen these muscles?

Core muscles are comprised of the muscles of the back, abdominals, and obliques. Strengthening these 3 muscle groups assists with alleviating back pain caused by muscle strains.

Standard Exercises

Bird dog:

  1. Start on all fours, with hands directly below the shoulders and knees directly below the hips.
  2. Lift your right arm and left leg straight out from your body, leaving your hips square with your knees.
  3. Return smoothly to the starting position and repeat with the left arm and right leg.

Forearm plank:

  1. Begin lying face-down, resting on forearms.
  2. Elbows should at a 90 degree angle and forearms should be shoulder-width apart.
  3. Feet should be hip-width apart with the balls of the feet pressing into the floor.
  4. Lift body off the ground while squeezing core muscles and keeping the back straight, hold for 10 seconds.

Side planks:

  1. Lie on your side, with bottom elbow directly under the shoulder.
  2. Feet should be stacked and aligned with hips.
  3. Lift hips off the ground, and hold with a straight back for 10 seconds.
  4. Repeat on the opposite side.

Modified Exercises

Standing cat/camel:

  1. While standing, place your hands on your thighs or knees, maintaining a slight bend in the knees.
  2. Arch your back up, hunching your shoulders and tucking your chin to your chest.
  3. Curve the spine downward, sink your belly towards your thighs, look up at the ceiling, continue to alternate between these spinal movements.

Standing bird dog:

  1. Stand 2-3 feet away from a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart and back straight.
  2. Extend your right arm straight up from the wall and lift your left leg back and up, extending both as far away from the wall as possible.
  3. Return to the starting position and repeat with the left arm and right leg.

How often should I perform these exercises?

ACSM recommends starting with one set of 10 repetitions, three days per week, for each exercise. After three weeks, try two sets of 15 repetitions, three or four days per week. After six weeks, perform two to three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions every day as part of a regular exercise program.

View the infographic below to see picture depictions of how to perform each exercise.


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