Water Workouts for Back Pain

While the couch may be calling your name when you have back pain, you may want to head to the pool: When done gently and safely, a water workout can actually help alleviate back pain and prevent it from getting worse.

Back pain is often the result of weak back muscles. A water workout is a low-impact activity that conditions and strengthens those muscles, as well as others, helping you better support your spine. And unlike exercising on land, working out in a pool provides your body with a “cushion” (the water), which takes stress off your back and helps you move more freely, minimizing your risk of injury.

Being active in the water is beneficial at any age and fitness level, and workouts can be modified to suit different goals and conditions. Though it’s gentler on your body than hitting the gym, and may feel easier at times, it can be just as effective.

Still not ready to suit up? Here’s more on the benefits of water exercise for back pain:

  • You can simply do more. Water’s buoyancy supports your weight, up to 90 percent of it, putting less pressure on your joints and spine and increasing your range of motion. You’ll be able to perform a wider range of movements, like leg lifts, and do them more easily in water because you won’t be fighting gravity.
  • You’ll strengthen muscles without risk of injury. To really test your muscles in the weight room, you might pick up a too-heavy barbell. You can avoid that temptation in the pool, since water provides at least 12 times greater resistance than air. Just moving will challenge your body.
  • You’ll improve blood flow to your muscles. The hydrostatic pressure—or pushing forces—of water helps encourage healthy blood flow to muscles. Aquatic exercises also improve your heart and lungs’ functioning by making them work hard against the pressure of the water.
  • You’ll lessen your perception of pain. Being in the water is pleasant and soothing. The relaxing sounds and soothing temperature can diminish the perception of pain and help you relax, which may inspire longer and more frequent workouts.

Water Exercises to Try

The best movements for those with back pain are those done in a vertical or standing position. The goal is to build strength in the back, abdominal and hip muscles, which are key to a healthy spine.

Proper technique is essential to staying safe. At least at first, it’s important to work with a trained instructor who can show you how to move appropriately, keeping your trunk stabilized and your spine neutral. One of your main goals should be strengthening muscles around your core, which will help protect your back and improve your posture and balance.

Here are some basic water workout moves you may want to consider:

  • Water Walking: Once you’re in the water, start by simply walking around the pool, feeling the tug of the water. Take long strides both forward and backward, starting in the shallow end and graduating to chest-high water. Be sure to keep your spine straight and torso stable while swinging your arms.
  • Knee-to-Chest: Stand on your right leg with your knee slightly bent and hold on to the side of the pool with your right hand for support. Bend your left knee and raise your left leg up until your knee reaches your chest. Lower it back down. Complete five reps and then switch sides.
  • Kickboard Balance: Sit on a kickboard or swim bar (a long flotation dumbbell) and balance yourself. Try to keep your spine in a straight line and engage your abdominals. Your legs should be resting naturally; your arms can be raised out to your sides, or your hands can be on your hips or gently holding the ends of the kick board. Hold for 60 seconds. You can also try kneeling on the board for a greater challenge.
  • Superman Stretch: Hold the side of the pool with both hands wider than shoulder-width apart and your arms straight. Extend your legs out behind you, spreading them apart, so you’re floating belly-down in the water. The water will support your weight while your vertebrae and back muscles enjoy a rare, full-extension stretch. You can even put your face in the water for a few moments, giving your neck a rest.
  • Water Aerobics: Water aerobics classes involve moves that often mimic land exercises like dancing, running and jumping jacks. A good class should include a warm-up and a cool-down, including plenty of flexibility exercises, and be taught by an instructor with special training in aquatic fitness. Get the OK from your doctor before trying it, and inform your teacher of your condition so that she can modify exercises for you, if needed.
  • Lap Swimming: Lap swimming can help ease back pain, but strokes and form matter. Keep your head and neck in line with your spine when you swim, and consider using goggles and a snorkel so that your face can remain in the water as much as possible. Start with the breast or back stroke, which involve less hyperextension than twisting, rotating moves, like the butterfly and freestyle strokes.
  • Burdenko Water Exercise: The Burdenko Method involves core-focused exercises that improve balance, coordination, flexibility, endurance, speed and strength. You’ll use a flotation vest and water barbells to perform forward and backward movements in the water. Inquire at your local gym or pool facility to see if this class is offered.

Tips for Any Water Workout

Whatever water workout you choose, here are some general tips to help you make the most of it while protecting your back from further discomfort:

  • Choose the right pool. You should be able to work out in different depths, as needed. Make sure the pool has an area where you can exercise in your own lane.
  • Check the water temperature. Water should be between 82 and 86 degrees, the recommended temperature for exercise.
  • Always warm up first to prevent injury. A good warm up includes walking in the water or doing gentle, slow laps.
  • Stay hydrated. Though you may not feel it, you will sweat during water exercise, so it’s important to drink water.
  • Consider aquatic equipment. Kickboards, water webs, water weights, a water belt and foam noodles are a few examples of tools that can enhance your workout by providing support and/or increased resistance. Set them on the side of the pool, within arm’s length, for easy access.  “Using a snorkel while swimming, even in an indoor pool, allows you to increase your focus on the movement of your body in the water,” adds Dawn McCrystal, M.S., R.C.E.P., C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass.
  • Wear water shoes if you’re concerned about stability or balance. They are made of water resistant fabric and have soles with traction, allowing you to grip the pool floor more easily.
  • Protect yourself from the sun. If you are doing water exercise outside, wear waterproof sunscreen, as well as a hat and sunglasses (if possible) to protect yourself from harmful rays.

It’s best to consult with your physician before embarking on any kind of exercise program. Your doctor may recommend that you work with a physical therapist experienced in pool or hydrotherapy who can help design an exercise program that’s right for you. In some cases, that may include a combination of water exercises and land-based exercises, like yoga or aerobic stretches. 

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