Avoid Back Strain this Winter with These Healthy Back Exercises

Our backs can bear much of the burden when the weather turns cooler. Winter activities can stress and strain the spine.
Avoid winter back pain with these healthy back exercises from our physical therapy team. Prioritize back health to help you avoid discomfort.

Why Winter is Prime Time for Back Strain

As the heart of winter sets in, you may realize that this cold season presents challenges for your body—especially your spine.

While many jobs home prep activities require extra repetitive movement in a forward bent position, there’s nothing quite as demanding as lifting loads of snow. Combine that with unsure footing, tense muscles in colder weather, and our tendency to spend more time indoors (sedentary and hunched over screens), and you have a recipe for back stress.

Now is the time to prepare your body for winter chores and activities. Flexibility and strength are crucial to keeping your back healthy. The main goal of these healthy back exercises is to help you maintain a neutral spine during snow shoveling and similar activities. A neutral spine means your back and pelvis are neither bent too far forward nor arched.

When the muscles in your upper legs are tight, they act as an anchor. They don’t allow the pelvis and hips to move into a neutral position. This posture can place extra strain on your lower back.

Stretching Your Hamstrings

For back health, it’s essential to keep both the front and back of your legs flexible. Focusing on your hamstrings in the back of your legs is especially crucial—they’re key for bending activities like shoveling.

There are several ways to stretch your hamstrings. Ideally, you should stretch them with your spine in a neutral position. Lie on the ground to support your back, keeping it flat on the floor. Hold your leg behind your knee and extend your foot up into the air. Alternatively, you can use a door frame to support your raised leg for a longer, sustained stretch with less effort.

These hamstring stretches are one of the best healthy back exercises you can do. They’ll keep your lower back feeling flexible.

A stretching illustration shows a figure lying on their back, with their left leg extended in the air. They have their hands on the back of their knee to stretch their hamstring muscle.

Increase Strength to Protect Your Back

In addition to keeping your body flexible enough to allow a neutral spine while bending, it’s also important to build sufficient strength to hold the neutral position. Certain healthy back exercises will help you build other muscles in your body to support your back.

It’s especially important to strengthen your abdominals, back, and hip muscles. This area is often referred to as your body’s core. Core strength helps you maintain and support a healthy back during lifting and other activities.

Try some of these basic core-strengthening exercises. It’s important to remember to maintain a flat-backed, neutral position when stretching and exercising.

Core Strengthening Exercise: Knee Lifts

An exercise illustration shows a figure lying on their back, with knees bent and spine on the floor. They are lifting one foot off the ground, bringing their leg toward their chest.

In this first core-strengthening exercise, you start by lying on the ground with your knees bent. Be sure that your back is flat on the floor (avoid arching your spine). Start with both feet on the ground, then bring one knee toward your chest. Hold and then return your foot to the ground.

As you do these knee lifts, ensure your pelvis doesn’t rock backward or forward. Keep your pelvis as still as possible during this healthy back exercise.

Core Strengthening Exercise: Leg and Arm Lifts

An exercise illustration depicts a figure on their hand and knee on the ground. One leg is lifted behind them, and one arm is extended in front of them. The alternate arm and leg are holding up their body.

Start this core strengthening exercise in a crawl or “tabletop” position. You may want to put a mat or towel on the floor beneath you to support your knees. Your torso should be parallel to the floor.

Engage your core by tightening your stomach muscles. Next, raise your right leg and extend it straight behind you. If you feel steady, raise your left arm simultaneously and extend it in front of your body. Hold the position for a few seconds, keeping your trunk rigid and pelvis level. Return to position and then repeat with the opposite leg and arm.

Learn Proper Lifting Techniques for Back Health

While these stretches and exercises for back health can help you build flexibility and strength, it’s also important that you understand the right positions for lifting and performing other activities. Knowing the proper technique will help you avoid lower back pain.

When shoveling this winter (or raking come spring), you’ll want to employ your improved muscles to increase your stability. That means, ideally, your larger hip and knee joints should take on the stress of bending.

Be sure to bend from your hips to reach forward and engage your abdominal muscles while protecting your back. For the best winter back health, maintain a neutral position during all activities.

If you feel yourself falling out of the neutral position or if you start to feel tired, you should stop and stretch your spine backward (by pulling your shoulders back and arching). Then, reengage your core muscles, and check that you are bending at your knees and hips as you begin to work again.

An illustration of proper shoveling positions. A figure is shown hunched forward, lifting a shovel with an X through the picture. Another figure is shown using proper form to bend forward with the hips while shoveling.

Performing a few healthy back exercises each day can help you build the strength to avoid back pain during the winter months. Follow the healthy lifting technique whenever you shovel snow or do other yard work.

If you have any issues with your spine or need a quick tune-up, please contact your team at MOSH Physical Therapy and Hand Therapy! MOSH Physical Therapy focuses on orthopedics and closely works with the physicians at Midwest Orthopedic Specialty Hospital.