The Smart Lifter's Solution for Back Pain

by Daniel Stransky

10 Exercises That'll Kill It

If you can lift heavy but still suffer from back pain, you're in luck. It's fixable. Here are 10 moves that'll help.

Being able to move heavy weight is a demonstration of absolute strength. If you can’t do it without weeks of lower back pain, you may lack stability. Yeah, stability.

We’ll get to some exercises to train the core and hips and help you master that stability. But the biggest thing to address is your breathing and bracing. You’ve heard the saying: Lifting heavy weight without being able to create a high level of core stiffness is like trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe.

Each time you deadlift or squat without sufficiently bracing your core, it’s like receiving a tiny injury – papercut size – to your spine and intervertebral discs. One time may not have an immediate effect, but you’ll eventually pay for accumulated years of poor technique.

So let’s talk about breathing and bracing.

How To Breathe and Brace Your Core

  • Put your hands on your obliques.
  • Inhale through the nose and expand your belly into your hands. You can also inhale through your mouth as if you’re sipping through a straw.
  • Either of these breathing tactics should make your stomach expand laterally into your hands, covering your obliques.
  • Once you get comfortable with just the inhale, flex your abs and carry on with the same breathing.

Once you’ve mastered this bracing and breathing, move on to the following exercises.

Note: Some of these may cause your breathing to change. When practicing holds like the bird dog or other plank variations, keep your core engaged while slowly letting air out of your mouth, then get back to an inhalation tactic that feels more natural to you.

1. Bird Dog

The bird dog is a core stability classic.

  • Start in a quadruped position with your hands directly under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
  • Inhale, brace the core and extend the opposing arm and leg without letting your torso rotate.
  • Keep the extending hand balled up in a fist and the foot of extending leg dorsiflexed (pointed down to the floor).
  • Hold the position for 20 seconds on each side for four rounds.

2. Stability Ball Plank

This is a progression of the normal plank. But with this one, you can’t get away with any compensations; you must use your core.

  • Start with your elbows parallel to each other on a stability ball.
  • Push the ball into the floor with your elbows so it doesn’t slip away from you.
  • Put one leg back with your foot planted in the ground.
  • Take an inhale, brace your core, then set the other leg back.
  • Keep in mind, the wider apart your legs, the easier the exercise will be.
  • Hold for 30 seconds to a minute. Go for three rounds.

Extra: At the end of the video, you can see I begin to move the stability ball in a small circular motion. This progression is called stir the pot and you should try it if the normal stability ball plank isn’t challenging enough.

3. Kettlebell Pullover in Dead Bug Position

  • Start this exercise in the traditional dead bug position holding a kettlebell. Use half the weight you’d normally use for a traditional dumbbell pullover.
  • Inhale and brace the core, then slowly reach the kettlebell behind your head until the handle is about two inches from the floor.
  • As you bring the kettlebell back to the starting position, forcefully exhale, keeping your abs flexed.
  • Reset your breath and initiate the next rep. Do this for 3 sets of 8 reps.

4. Ab Wheel Rollout

  • Hold the ab wheel under the shoulders with knees on the ground spread to about shoulder width.
  • Flex the core before you initiate the movement. This should put you into a slight posterior pelvic tilt. Your hips will tuck in slightly and your back will be in slight flexion.
  • Inhale using your core, brace, and roll the wheel out while maintaining tension.
  • Once you’ve reached a point where the tension feels tough to maintain, use your core and lats to reverse the movement back to the starting position.
  • Don’t lose your position or allow your lower back to go into extension.
  • If you go a bit too far out, you might experience a slight lower back extension. You want to pull that back in as you bring the wheel back.
  • Perform 3 sets of 6 slow and controlled reps.

5. Cable Suitcase Hold

This is an anti-lateral flexion exercise that mainly targets the obliques and quadratus lumborum.

  • Hold a cable handle attachment by your side while maintaining an upright posture.
  • Move your free hand out to the side (or behind your head) with a balled-up fist.
  • Use a moderate weight to start with because the angle of pull (cable setting should be on the bottom notch) will be more challenging than just holding a dumbbell by your side like a normal suitcase hold.
  • Breathe and brace while maintaining core tension.
  • Do 3 sets of 30 seconds on each side.

6. Single-Leg Glute Bridge Hold

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and heels about 8 inches from your glutes.
  • With hands on hips, drive your hips up into a glute bridge. This hand position will help you keep your torso from shifting when your start doing this exercise.
  • Inhale and brace your core, then lift one of your legs off the ground keeping a 90-degree angle in your knee.
  • Forcefully squeeze that glute of the down leg and drive your heel into the floor.
  • Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
  • Repeat for 3 rounds.

7. Hip Airplane

  • Set yourself up by getting into the bottom range of a single-leg RDL. Hold onto a Smith machine if you can’t hold your balance in this position.
  • Once in position, push your big toe into the floor and begin to turn your torso down into your stabilizing leg, creating internal rotation of the hip.
  • Reverse the motion to turn your torso away from the stabilizing hip creating external rotation.
  • When moving through this motion, imagine that you’re painting the inside of your hip socket with the ball of your femur.
  • Do this exercise for 6 slow and controlled reps on each side. Go for 3 rounds.

8. Hip Flexor Iso Hold

  • Put your foot on a bench that creates a 90-degree angle at the knee. You can do this exercise with no support or with a hand supported on a wall or squat rack.
  • Squeeze the glute of the stabilizing leg, then use your hip flexor to drive the knee up and foot off the bench as high as it can go.
  • Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs. Do 3 rounds.

9. Adductor Machine Iso Hold

  • Get into a traditional seated adductor machine.
  • Choose a weight heavier than what you’d use for active reps.
  • Close the legs and hold for 30 seconds. Do 3 rounds.

10. Cable Leg Abduction

  • Attach an ankle attachment to a low cable.
  • Stand in front of the machine holding it with a slightly forward torso lean.
  • Get stable in the leg that’ll stay on the ground with your big toe pressed hard into the floor.
  • Sweep the leg with the cable attachment back at a 45-degree angle and hold the top for a one-second pause when you feel max glute engagement.
  • Let the leg come back slowly and repeat.
  • Do this exercise for 3 sets of 15 reps.

When To Do These

You can program these exercises in a few different ways. I like to do the entire routine as an active rest day. Do the entire routine once a week.

Or just pick one or two exercises and use them as primers for your workouts. Just make sure not to do the same ones every session since each exercise works the core and hip musculature in different ways.

Conversely, you could also choose to add a few of the exercises to the end of a training session as well. Any way you’d like to fit these in would work well because they don’t require heavy weight or impose a significant eccentric load.

These exercises and breathing techniques will make that post-deadlift backache a thing of the past.



Thinking about where I typically get back pain, and I can visibly see this helping as I watched your demonstration.

Absolutely working this in. Thanks!


Yes - this one is a great option for stabilizing the glute med and restoring internal and external rotation of the hip. Also makes you practice using your big toe to keep the ankle stable. It can be challenging at first in which case you can use a smith machine for hand support while going through the motion.

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Nice timely article as my back has been acting up again.
Realizing that certain moves really aggravate my low back as I am now in my mid 30s.

In addition to fixing any imbalances, strength deficiencies, or gaps in stability, exercise selection can go a long way with keeping back pain to a minimum. For example, if traditional deadlifts bother your back, opt for trap bar DL or sumo stance. There are no mandatory exercises. You just need to find the ones that fit your body best.

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It’s also fun to make sounds like a turning airplane while you do this. Neeeer-um!


Great article. I have lower back, knee and hip pain. I do tons of PT exercises like clams and leg lifts, but I can’t seem to get back to pain free - especially after working out. I’ll incorporate these moves into my routine, I think they could help imrpove my issues.

Excellent article!!
Though I will have to substitute bands for the machine exercises with my home gym being rather rough and ready :grinning:

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