Four Minutes to a Healthy Back

Do the overwhelming number of back exercises that claim to build strength, flexibility and improve posture confuse you? Some of those highly touted exercises can actually cause more tension on the spine, adding to discomfort and negatively impact your movement.

This article and video will outline four easy to perform back exercises, all of which are scalable to various levels of conditioning, and can be completed in under four minutes a day. Dr. Stuart McGill, considered the back expert in the field of back rehabilitation, highly recommends these four exercises.

In the Engage You Core article, we learned the core and back are intertwined as they work in conjunction to provide stability. Stability is the ability to maintain control of a joint movement and resist an undesired movement.  By having a strong back and core, we have a solid foundation for all other movements to build upon. This is called proximal stability, a term we will discuss more in the future.  To build back stability, practice these back exercises daily.

  1. Cat-Camel Exercise (aka Cat Cow in yoga).

Cat – Camel is spine flexion-extension cycles that reduce internal resistance in the spine. It is a motion exercise, not a static hold. Do 5-8 cycles per day.

Cat Camel

It begins with the Cat portion or upward extension of the thoracic spine:

  • Starting on hands and knees, fingers spread evenly.
  • Wrists in line with shoulders & elbows.
  • Arch the back upward as you exhale.
  • The chin comes toward the chest.
  • The tailbone tucks under.
  • Briefly hold for 1-2 seconds.

Then you move into the Camel portion:

  • Lower the belly.
  • Neck comes up looking out in front (not upward).
  • Tailbone lifts.
  • Briefly hold for 1-2 seconds then go back into the cat position.
  1. Bird Dog.

The Bird Dog is a leg and opposite arm extension exercise. These are isometric holds that should last no longer than 8 seconds.

Bird Dog
Bird Dog


  • Build endurance by holding for 8 seconds then increasing repetitions.
  • Higher difficulty is achieved by drawing the elbow to the knee (Bird Dog Crunch).

    Bird Dog Crunch


  1. Side Plank (aka side bridge)

Side planks target the lateral muscles of the torso and are important for optimal stability. These are isometric holds, so hold the position until your form starts to break down then rest. Work on getting to one minute per side, then advance to a more difficult progression.

side plank
Side Plank Variations
  • Begin by bridging the torso between the elbow and knees and raising the torso so a straight line occurs from the shoulder down to the legs.
  • Place elbow directly under shoulder, forearm on ground to help balance.
  • Always maintain a neutral neck and spine position.
  • Feet should not be stacked one on top, move the top foot out in front of the bottom foot.
  • If you are bending in the middle, work on an easier progression.
    • Level 1 – Knee on ground.
    • Level 2 – Ankle to shoulder bridging.
    • Level 3 – Star pattern – raise the top leg and or top arm.

      Star plank


  1. Modified Curl Up.

The modified curl up is a modified sit up where the key point is to maintain a neutral lumbar spine while slowly raising the back using the upper abdominals.  Do not flatten your lower back. 

  • Use your hands underneath your lower back to provide support or a small rolled up towel. Flattening the back flexes the lumbar spine and adds stress.
  • One knee is bent while the other is straight to lock the pelvis.
  • Alternate the bent leg halfway through the repetitions.
  • Engage your core muscles, while raising your shoulders several inches off the ground.
  • Keep lower end of scapula on the ground. You are only doing a small motion.
  • Use hands to support the neck if needed.
  • Wok to increase repetitions, up to 3 sets of 10-12.

Low back exercises have the most beneficial effect when performed daily. You should not experience pain during any of these exercises, if you do, stop immediately and consult a professional. Add these four minutes of back exercises to your morning routine to prep your body for the day ahead and build stability for better movement.


2 thoughts on “Four Minutes to a Healthy Back”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *