8 Back Exercises Physical Therapists Want Everyone to Do (2024)

Your back is the center of your body’s operations. “Every movement you do, even moving your hand or lower leg, all starts from your back, which is the center of your gravity and one of your body’s main sources of strength,” says Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.

Given the importance of your spine and surrounding muscles for daily postures and movements like sitting, standing, and walking — not to mention working out or playing sports — it’s probably no surprise that keeping your back as healthy as possible can go a long way.

Targeted exercises that improve stability by strengthening your back, along with mobility-promoting stretches, are a great place to start, according to Dr. Stewart. In this article, learn more about the importance of a strong and flexible back, and how to keep your back healthy with exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Samantha Stewart, PT, DPT

Physical Therapist

Dr. Stewart is a Hinge Health physical therapist with over 8 years of experience. She is certified in myofascial trigger point therapy.

Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA

Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer

Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.

Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT

Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer

Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Strengthening Exercises to Build a Strong Back

When you think about strengthening exercises, you might first think about areas like your arms and legs. But back strengthening exercises are important, too. Strengthening the muscles around your spine enhances stability and balance and can alleviate discomfort caused by conditions such as sciatica or herniated discs.

When exercising your back, Dr. Stewart suggests working a wide variety of muscles. “The entire back works together, so addressing several muscles can improve overall strength and stability,” she says. Not sure where to begin? The exercises below recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are a great place to start.

1. Bird Dog

1. Bird Dog

By strengthening your lower, middle, and upper back muscles, Dr. Stewart says this exercise can help reduce back pain and prevent injury with exercise. As a bonus, you’ll also activate your core muscles, another important source of stability in movement.

How to Do It:

  • On a yoga mat, get into a comfortable position on your hands and knees. Place your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips.

  • Now, lift one leg straight behind you while your opposite arm reaches straight forward off the ground. Your leg and arm should form a straight line with your back.

  • Look down at the floor and imagine balancing a cup of water on your back as you hold this position.

  • Then, return to the starting position.

  • Next, repeat on the other side by lifting your other arm and leg off the floor.

  • Then return to the starting position.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your core, hip, and arm muscles working.

This exercise works across your entire lumbar spine, which is great for addressing low back pain. “You’re also activating your glutes when you do a bridge, which further helps support your back muscles,” says Dr. Stewart.

How to Do It:

  • On a yoga mat, lie comfortably on your back.

  • With your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, push through your feet to raise your hips off the floor.

  • Focus on squeezing your butt muscles as you hold this position.

  • Then, relax your hips back to the floor.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your butt, hip, and leg muscles working.

3. Push-Up

3. Push-Up

A simple push-up works all the important muscles in your upper back, which helps with comfort when sitting, preventing neck and shoulder pain, and going about your daily movements. “A lot of people are overwhelmed by push-ups, but they’re easily modifiable,” says Dr. Stewart. “You can do them on the floor or against a wall or table to make them work for you.”

How to Do It:

  • On a yoga mat, start on your hands and toes with your arms and legs straight and your hands placed under your shoulders. Your hips should be raised to about the same height as your shoulders.

  • Now bend your elbows and move your chest toward the floor, stopping at a height that is comfortable yet challenging.

  • Focus on keeping your hips from dipping toward the floor.

  • Then, push your hands into the floor as you straighten your arms, returning to the starting position.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your arm, core, and chest muscles working.

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4. Bent Over I,Y,T

4. Bent Over I,Y,T

An all-in-one strengthening movement, this exercise targets the muscles across the upper and mid-back, and also activates your lower back muscles as well.

How to Do It:

  • Start standing, then hinge at your hips to bend your chest toward the floor. Your arms should be straight and hanging toward the floor.

  • Now, move your arms toward the ceiling into an “I” position with your arms straight.

  • Relax your arms back down, then lift your arms toward the ceiling into a “Y” shape.

  • Lower your arms, then lift them out to the sides into a “T,” squeezing your shoulder blades together.

  • Then relax to the starting position.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel your upper back, shoulder, and neck muscles working.

Physical Therapist-Recommended Back Stretches

Back flexibility exercises are an often overlooked but crucial part of maintaining a healthy and functional spine. They improve range of motion while helping to prevent stiffness, tension, and discomfort. The following back stretches recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists can be incorporated into any daily routine.

5. Standing Side Bend With Arm Reach

5. Standing Side Bend With Arm Reach

This movement gently stretches deep muscles in your mid- and upper back. In the process, you’ll also get a good stretch in your abdominal muscles, which are important for rotational movements.

How to Do It:

  • Start by standing with your feet a comfortable distance apart and your hands at your sides.

  • Now, slide one hand down your leg toward your knee so that your shoulder leans to the side and down toward the floor.

  • At the same time, reach your opposite arm straight up toward the ceiling, and then over your head in the direction you’re leaning.

  • Focus on deep breaths to relax into this position as you hold.

  • Then, return to the starting position.

  • Next, repeat on your other side by sliding your other hand down toward your knee. At the same time, reach your opposite arm over your head in the direction you’re leaning.

  • Hold, and then return to the starting position.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel a stretch in your low back, hips, and the sides of your body.

6. Child’s Pose

6. Child’s Pose

You can easily modify child’s pose in different ways to find what’s most comfortable for you. But no matter how you do it, child’s pose stretches all the muscles down the length of your spine. You can also incorporate deep breathing into the movement, which promotes relaxation through your whole body.

How to Do It:

  • On a yoga mat, get into a comfortable kneeling position with your shins and feet flat on the floor.

  • Sit your hips back toward your heels with your feet together and your knees wide apart.

  • Now slide your arms out in front of you while moving your hips toward your heels.

  • Completely relax your head and chest down toward the floor.

  • As you hold this position, try taking slow, deep breaths.

  • Finally, walk your hands back toward your knees and return to an upright position.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel a stretch in your back, shoulders, and hips.

7. Cat-Cow

7. Cat-Cow

Another versatile stretch, cat-cow takes you through the full motions of flexing and extending your spine. “If you’re new to exercise or have an injury, you can ease into it and work into a range that feels comfortable to you,” says Dr. Stewart.

How to Do It:

  • On a yoga mat, get into a comfortable position on your hands and knees. Place your hands below your shoulders, and your knees below your hips.

  • Now, slowly round your entire back up toward the ceiling while drawing your chin toward your chest.

  • Return to the starting position.

  • Then, look up toward the ceiling as you arch your back toward the floor.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel a slight stretch in your back, neck, or hips.

8. Back Rotation Stretch

8. Back Rotation Stretch

Movements that incorporate rotation can help with twisting movements, like getting in and out of a car. Dr. Stewart likes this particular stretch because it works your muscles all the way from your neck to your hips.

How to Do It:

  • Start by lying comfortably on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.

  • Now, use your hand to pull one knee across your body and toward the floor, twisting through your back.

  • Let your other arm reach out to your side, keeping your upper back on the floor as you straighten your other leg.

  • Focus on deep breaths as you hold this stretch.

  • Then, return to the starting position.

  • As you do each rep, you might feel a stretch in your back, hips, and upper body.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

The Benefits of Regular Back Exercises

Routine back exercises, especially movements recommended by a physical therapist, can play an important role in strengthening your back muscles and improving overall mobility — both of which are important for maintaining a healthy spine. “Keeping your back stable with exercise helps you to function no matter what’s going on in your spine,” says Dr. Stewart. Here are some of the main benefits:

  • Preventing back pain, especially if you frequently sit in the same position without getting up to move.

  • Preventing injuries from sports, your exercise routine, or daily tasks like bending over and lifting.

  • Improving bone density, especially as you age.

  • Supporting healthy movement patterns, especially if you have conditions like osteoarthritis.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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  1. Casiano, V. E., & De, N. K. (2020). Back Pain. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538173/

  2. Cho, H., Kim, E., & Kim, J. (2014). Effects of the CORE Exercise Program on Pain and Active Range of Motion in Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 26(8), 1237–1240. doi:10.1589/jpts.26.1237

  3. Dreisinger, T. E. (2014). Exercise in the management of chronic back pain. Ochsner Journal, 14(1),101-107.

  4. Lee, J.-S., & Kang, S.-J. (2016). The effects of strength exercise and walking on lumbar function, pain level, and body composition in chronic back pain patients. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, 12(5), 463–470. doi:10.12965/jer.1632650.325

8 Back Exercises Physical Therapists Want Everyone to Do (2024)


Why does my physical therapist push on my back? ›

In other words, the therapist places his or her hands on your spine and presses downward toward the front of the body. In one-minute, the therapist can move the joint about 30 times. This type of gentle mobilization can stretch contracted tissue in and around the joint without harming the other soft tissues nearby.

How long does the McKenzie method take to work? ›

Pain relief from the McKenzie method typically occurs in 1 to 3 weeks, and many individuals experience noticeable relief as early as their first exercise session.

How often should you do physical therapy on your back? ›

Patients may have physical therapy for back pain two to three times a week for several months. While you're there, the therapist will work with you on stretching and strengthening exercises.

What are the 5 McKenzie exercises? ›

The stages of McKenzie's exercises are prone lying, prone lying while resting on elbows, prone push-ups, progressive extension using pillows and standing extension. Numerous variations of the McKenzie sequence exist which add or remove stages according to interpretation of the original sequence.

When not to do McKenzie exercises? ›

McKenzie method exercises are not recommended in the treatment of pain that develops while healing from some types of spine surgery, such as lumbar spinal fusion, anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF), or artificial disc replacement surgery in the neck or lower back.

What is the Mckinley method? ›

The McKenzie method is a specific type of physical therapy focused on the treatment of back pain, sciatica and radicular pain, and neck pain. The method has a unique approach to assessment and provides individualized exercise-based treatment aimed to both relieve symptoms as well as heal the underlying cause of pain.

What are the top 3 exercises for back pain? ›

Exercises like glute bridging, clamshells, quadruped, and squats are key components of a good low back exercise routine.

What is the most effective exercise for lower back? ›

Exercises to Help Lower Back Pain
  • Step 1: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Step 2: Use both hands to pull one knee into your chest.
  • Step 3: Tighten your abdominals and press your spine to the floor. ...
  • Step 4: Return to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
Sep 25, 2023

What is one simple exercise for lower back pain? ›

  1. Lie on your back with both legs bent.
  2. Gently pull one knee towards your chest.
  3. Hold 2 to 3 seconds. Do this 10 to 15 times, alternating legs.
  4. Repeat 2 to 3 times a day, or anytime you feel pain.

How do you know if you have a bad physical therapist? ›

If your therapist is using the same exercises every session, it could be a sign of a bad physical therapist. Repetitive movements could not only limit your healing, but could even cause further injury. Your physical therapist should also be using a combination of passive and active techniques.

Should you take rest days from physical therapy? ›

Overuse of injured or weakened areas can lead to further damage. This can prevent injury or re-injury during the therapeutic process. Rest days give your body a chance to heal, reducing the risk of exacerbating existing injuries or developing new ones.

Does PT really help back pain? ›

Physical therapy is one of the best treatment modalities for back pain, as it focuses on long-term pain reduction through therapeutic exercise and manual manipulation. It can also be continued long after your appointments through a home treatment regimen.

Why does pushing on my back feel good? ›

This release of pressure is supposedly what makes back adjustments feel so good to lots of people. Back cracking also causes endorphins to be released around the area that was adjusted.

How to tell if your physical therapist likes you? ›

The therapist might seem more flirtatious, and even seductive. You might find the session dwells on personal conversations, instead of focusing on treatment. Changes in body language might not be immediately obvious, but they can indicate a shift in the relationship.

Is it normal for a physical therapist to touch you? ›

When a physical therapist touches their patient in order to evaluate the area causing pain, deliver a pain-relieving massage, loosen up scar tissue, or accomplish other restorative tasks, they do more than deliver physical benefits. Their touch conveys the physical therapist's compassion and concern to the patient.

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