Walgreens The Thread

Exercise-induced back pain

Clinically reviewed by Nancy Kupka, PhD, RN May 22, 2022 • 5 min.

The adage says that the two unavoidable aspects of life are death and taxes. It seems like that list is missing an item: back pain.

Back pain is a universally acknowledged problem. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says 4 in 5 Americans will suffer from back strain at some point in their life. It affects men and women equally. It can be a chronic condition or the result of an injury.

Seemingly, you or someone you know has suffered a back injury, has the number for at least one chiropractor in their phone and has a sure-fire method of twisting and stretching to relieve muscle strain or back pain.

It's a vicious cycle we all understand: To stay healthy, we exercise regularly. But a missed step here, a failed moment of pride in the gym there, and the result is a sharp, stinging sensation that takes your breath, and mobility, away. We need a healthy back to stay healthy, but we can't get healthy because our backs hurt. 

While  hot or cold packs,  over-the-counter pain relievers, gentle stretching and a dose of humility may help you overcome exercise-induced back strain, the reality is that not everyone is a world-class athlete. No matter your skill level, it's important to exercise at the level where your body, not your self-image, can thrive.

Follow these five steps to help prevent exercise-induced back pain and recover safely from your workout:

  1. Dress: Gym attire isn't just about fashion. Performance is actually a matter of safety. You wouldn't run a marathon in flip flops; similarly, you should select shoes that offer good grip and support. The right shoe can help take the strain off not only your feet but also your back.
  2. Stretch: Make those muscles limber and ready for work! If you tend to have tight hamstrings, work on them before you start your workout. Prep your body for what's to come. Stretching  your core muscles, those in your abdomen and around your spine, gives you a healthy warmup and also helps expand your range of motion. Gaining core strength can give you better posture and also help to prevent injury.
  3. Hydrate: Dehydration is something you need to be aware of before, during and after your workout. Drink lots of water to keep your body operating its best.
  4. Stay realistic: Don't be intimidated by those reflections you see in the mirror. Don't worry about how many pounds someone else lifted or how much you could lift when you were younger. Start slow and light and increase weight and resistance as you get stronger. Slow and steady. If your gym has a trainer, ask for instruction so you can be sure you're lifting safely.
  5. Recover: Stretching again is a great way to recover from a workout while also giving your body a relaxing cool-down transition to normal life. Take deep breaths and let the stretch work. You should feel a healthy stretch, not pain.

Of course, the gym isn't the only place you can experience back pain. Students need to be wary of carrying overweight backpacks. You should use ergonomically designed furniture and equipment to help reduce the risk of work-related back injuries. Your age and fitness level can determine how much,  literally, your back can take.

And, as millions of Americans can attest to, when there's a battle between someone's will and their back, the back always wins. Keep exercising, keep moving—just be wise about how much strain you put on your back.

Clinically reviewed and updated May 2022.

Explore more

6 min.
By Jean Cherry, MBA, BSN, WCC
May 15
7 min.
Clinically reviewed by Nancy Kupka, PhD, RN
May 10
13 min.
By Nika Hakim, PharmD
May 21