Introduction

After any back problem, it's important to get movement and strength back. This supports tissue healing and will help you get moving again.

You may not be able to return to your usual exercise levels immediately and improvements may be slow to start with. However, a gradual return to normal activities is the best way to get good short and long term results after a back problem.

When doing exercise you should listen to your pain levels, especially in the early stages. You may find that these exercises increase your symptoms slightly in the beginning. However, they should get easier over time and, with regular practice, can help to improve movement in the back.

If the exercises do cause some discomfort then taking prescribed medication from your GP or pharmacist may help to keep you exercising.

How to tell if you're exercising at the right level

This guide can help you to understand if you're exercising at the right level. It'll also let you see how much pain or discomfort is acceptable.

It can be helpful to rate your pain out of 10 (0 being no pain 10 being the worst pain you have ever had), for example:

  • 0 to 3 - minimal pain
  • 4 to 5 - acceptable pain
  • 6 to 10 - excessive pain

Pain during exercise

Aim to keep your pain within a rating of 0 to 5. If your pain gets above this level, you can change the exercises by:

  • reducing the number of times you do a movement
  • reducing the speed of a movement
  • increasing rest time between movements

Pain after exercise

Exercise should not make your existing back pain worse overall. However, practicing new exercises can sometimes cause short term muscle pain as the body gets used to moving in new ways. This kind of pain should ease quickly and your pain should be no worse the morning after you’ve exercised.

How many and how often

You should add exercises into your routine gradually to help your back pain. 

Movement exercises

Repetitions are how often you do a single movement. When starting new exercises, it can be helpful to do 2 to 3 repetitions at a time.

It’s better to do small amounts throughout the day. For example, practise your repetitions every hour.

As this gets easier, and if you feel able to, add 1 or 2 repetitions to your movements every few days.

As you become able to do more repetitions, it can be helpful to break things up into sets. This means you could do more repetitions at a time but you'll do them less often throughout the day. For example:

  1. Do 8 repetitions.
  2. Rest for a minute.
  3. Repeat another set of 8 repetitions.
  4. Repeat this 2 to 3 times a day.

Over time you can try to increase the number of repetitions you do. You should aim for a maximum of 2 sets of 15.

Stretching exercises

The aim of a stretch is to hold a position for a longer period of time. Over time this can help to improve your range of movement. 

When doing the exercise you should be able to feel a gentle stretch. This shouldn't be sore or uncomfortable.

You should try to hold stretches for 20 to 30 seconds if possible.

Try to focus on doing sets of exercises. For example, do 2 to 3 sets of stretches. Aim to do this 2 to 3 times a day.

As you do more stretching you should feel your range of movement improve and you’ll be able to stretch further.

When to stop

Stop these exercises if they make your symptoms worse, or if they cause new pain.

If your back pain worsens while following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Help and support

If your back pain hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Knee rolls

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise lying down. A good place to do this exercise is on your bed.

Rolling the knees from one side and to the other is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Begin lying down with your knees pointing towards the ceiling. Slowly roll your knees to the right.
Hold for a few seconds and then raise the knees so that they are pointing towards the ceiling again.
Repeat on the opposite side.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Pelvic tilts

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise lying down. A good place to do this exercise is on your bed.

Tilting the hips up and down is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Lying on your back, place both hands on your hips. Slowly tilt your hips towards the bed to flatten your back into the bed.
Hold for 2 seconds and then tilt your hips in the opposite direction. This should increase the space between your lower back and the bed. Relax before repeating again.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Single knee hug

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise lying down. A good place to do this exercise is on your bed.

Bringing the leg up to the chest and back down again is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Lying on your back, bring one knee up towards your chest. The other knee should be pointing towards the ceiling.
Hold for a few seconds then slowly release.
Repeat on the opposite side.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Double knee hug

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should do this exercise lying down. A good place to do this exercise is on your bed.

Bringing the knees up to the chest and back down again is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Lying on your back, slowly bring your knees in towards your chest. You can place your hands over your knees to feel the stretch a little deeper.
Slowly release the knee hug.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Cat camel

Before starting this exercise, find out:

You should begin this exercise on your hands and knees.

Curling the back in and out again is one repetition.

Instruction Key movement
Place your knees on the floor or on your bed with a little space between them. Keeping your back straight, place your hands on the floor in front. Your hands should be in line with your shoulders.
Gently pull the spine upwards. Tilt your chin in towards the chest at the same time.
Slowly uncurl your back. Now push your chest towards the floor and tilt your head gently towards the ceiling. Hold and then release.

If you prefer, you can print these exercises to refer to while doing them.

Last updated:
02 August 2022