4 back-strengthening exercises

Four easy moves that will strengthen muscles and keep you injury-free.

The Workout

These exercises were developed by Roberta Lenard, owner of Lenard Fitness, a personal-training company in Somerville, Mass., and Anthony Carey, owner of Function First, an exercise studio in San Diego.

1. Hip Bridge

How to do it: Lie on your back, feet flat and hip-width apart, arms relaxed, and knees bent. Squeeze your buttocks as you lift your hips, creating a straight line from the knees to the shoulders. Hold for a slow count of two, then lower slowly. Build up to 10 to 12 repetitions.

What it does: This move counteracts the effects of too much chair time, which puts excessive pressure on the spine. It stretches the hip flexors and strengthens the muscles that stabilize the spine, including those of the lower back, the gluteals, and the large, stabilizing abdominal muscles.

Make it harder: Lift one foot off the floor and hold it straight up toward the ceiling, foot flexed, keeping the hips even. This is much more challenging, so start by holding this pose for just a few seconds. Repeat five to eight times, then switch legs.

2. Bird Dog
How to do it: Begin on all fours, knees hip-width apart and under the hips, hands flat and shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your abs by pulling belly toward spine. Keep the spine neutral, without arching the back or rotating the hips, and extend your right leg back and your left arm straight ahead. Hold for two to three seconds or as long as you can maintain form. Repeat five to six times on each side.

What it does: This exercise improves muscle balance and coordination, making it easier to keep the spine stable for everyday moves, such as walking, running, dancing, and carrying a child. It also tones your glutes, upper back, lower spine, and hamstrings. Tighter abs also keep the spine supported.

Make it harder: Gradually increase the holding time for 10 to 12 counts. For an additional challenge, add movement to the mix by slowly lifting and lowering the extended arm and leg a few inches, maintaining proper form throughout.

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3. Side Plank
How to do it: Lie on your right side, in a straight line from head to feet, resting on your forearm. Your elbow should be directly under your shoulder. With your abdominals gently contracted, lift your hips off the floor, maintaining the line. Keep your hips square and your neck in line with your spine. Hold 20 to 40 seconds and lower. Repeat two to three times, alternating sides. (If this is too challenging, start with bent knees.)

What it does: Builds strength and endurance in the core. This will help keep your lower back protected and stable during activities that require movement in the hips or back.

Make it harder: While holding the basic position, lift and lower your top leg. Gradually work toward holding the upper leg for 5 to 10 counts. Another option: Instead of resting on your forearm, support your body with your hand, palm on the floor and under the shoulder, elbow straight.

4. Lunge
How to do it: With your abs gently contracted and hands on hips, take a big step forward with your right foot. Sink down so your right knee is at a 90-degree angle, then push back to the starting position without pausing. Repeat 8 to 12 times, then switch legs and repeat.

What it does:
Improves whole-body control, which is key to protecting the spine during walking, running, or stair-climbing. Recruits both surface and deeper stabilizing muscles along the sides, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves.

Make it harder: Set up to do a basic lunge, but this time step your right foot out on a diagonal, not straight ahead, as if the foot is pointing to 2 o’clock on a clock face. (When you lunge with the left foot, step it out to 10 o’clock.) The change in foot placement makes it harder to balance. As you get stronger, try it with your hands interlaced behind your head or hold a dumbbell in each hand to increase resistance.