Many years ago, actually it was in 2011 (crazy to how time flies), I suffered a back injury while working on my roof. I was trying to corral my daughter and something went “POP” in my lower back. Well, that was my disc. I was in pretty bad shape. My back pain was, at times, unbearable. One of the things my doctor recommended was to perform water exercises for back pain.
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My goal with this post is to walk you through some water exercises that have helped me out through the years, dealing with my back pain. This is just my perspective and things that have helped me out, so I hope you are able to get some much-needed relief as well.
I have dealt with back pain for a good portion of my adult life, you can read my full story here. The pain radiates down my right leg through my calf and often into my tiptoes. That is my sciatic nerve yelling loud and clear. Over the years, I have tried many different approaches to dealing with and trying to overcome my pain. I have used inversion tables, I have tried shots and even had surgery many years ago.
Swimming…can you define swimming?
The first thing I thought of when my doctor told me to try water exercises, was swimming. I am NOT a swimmer. Sure, I can swim, but my style of swimming revolves around my backyard pool, or occasionally a lake. My swimming is more of survival mode, or just trying to get from one place to another in water. I am certainly no Michael Phelps.
Benefits of water exercises
There is definitely more to exercising in water than just plain old swimming. Exercising in water has a lot of benefits and I will get into some of those here. This article from the Nebraska Spine Hospital outlines some of the benefits of swimming. But first, please check with your doctor before you start an exercise program.
First off, we are buoyant in water. So, there is less pressure on our bodies when we are in the water. This is a great thing for the spine and a pinched nerve like I was dealing with. The great thing about exercising in water is that this is a no impact way to exercise. Water exercise offers a way to build muscle, which will help to support the spine, but in a no impact way.
Working out in water is a great way to work on balance and improve your strength. Water offers resistance, so you don’t even necessarily have to use weights. I see professional athletes doing this as well when they are rehabbing from an injury. Athletes will spend a lot of time in the pool in order to get back on the field, court, or wherever they play.
Now that we have covered some of the benefits of water exercises, now let’s talk about what some good water exercises and stretches are. I will start with stretching first.
Stretching in the pool
Stretching in the pool is great because of the buoyancy factor. You should be able to support yourself better in the pool. One great way is to stretch your hamstrings using the pool ladder. Keep one leg on the floor of the pool and use a rung on the ladder to put the heel of your opposite leg. The different rungs of the ladder can give you a variety of heights to stretch your hamstring more or less. I point my toes on the leg I am stretching, as a modification for my back pain. This will help to loosen up those hamstrings, which can be a major contributor to low back pain.
Another stretch is a calf stretch. You can use the wall of the pool to hang on to. The same concept holds true that you would do on land. Put one foot, toes against the wall with your heel on the floor and stretch your calf. Gently lean into the leg that is up against the wall, for a nice stretch of your calf. Repeat on the other side.
Walking in the water is a great way to improve your core strength. As I mentioned, water just by itself offers resistance, so walking in the water, about waist deep, is an ideal way to start out. This can help to strengthen your core. It’s hard to walk in water and it’s a fantastic exercise, especially if you are limited with what you can do on land. You can walk forward, backward, or try some side-to-side walking, all of this is great for the core. If you can “run” then more power to you as well.
Here we go again, swimming
Swimming, of course, is the most obvious exercise to do it water. When I started out swimming after I had my injury in 2011, I literally couldn’t swim on my stomach, doing the breaststroke like I normally do. The angle of my low back, legs, and kicking actually aggravated my injury. So, I ended up swimming on my back. This was perfect for me at the time. The only issue I had was trying to gauge where I was at in the pool while doing laps, so I wouldn’t hit my head on the wall because I couldn’t see where I was going :).
There are many different ways to swim of course, but find a style that works for you. Maybe it’s breaststroke, freestyle, or on your back like me. The motion of swimming on my back, allowed me to engage my lats in the upper back, and kick with my legs, to get some leg work in also. Not to mention the cardio workout that swimming gives. Swimming is a full body workout and is a fantastic water exercise for back pain. Another variation is to try swimming on your back using only your legs to flutter kick. That is a great cardio exercise.
Leg lifts are a great way to build core strength, engaging your abs and lower back. This is something I was not able to do out of the water but was a great thing to do in the pool. You can grab onto the ladder with your arms about the level of your ears, and grab behind you as if you were to get out of the pool backward. You can then raise and lower your knees to your chest. The water helps to assist you with this movement, so you can go as far as you need. You can also use pool noodles to support yourself as you do this exercise.
Other stuff to do in the pool
Leg kicks are another fantastic lower back and lower body exercise to help with your core strength. Lay on your back. You can use pool noodles to support your upper body, by putting the noodles around your back, under your armpits. Then kick your way around the pool. This will engage the abs, lower back glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps which are all critical to a strong core and back.
If you are able to twist your torso without pain then do just that in the water. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Put your hands together in front of you, with your arms fully extended and twist from side to side. This will engage the obliques as well as other core muscles. If you have a kickboard handy, hold the kickboard between your hands under the water as you do this, for added resistance.
Leg kickbacks are a great way to work your hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings. To do this, stand up straight in the pool. You are then going to slowly move one leg back while keeping the other leg on the pool floor. Imagine you are standing on your right leg, you will almost act like you are slowly sweeping your left leg back. Keep the leg that is in motion extended. When I do this, I can feel this working my glutes, inner thigh, hip flexor, and lower back. It’s a great exercise to work on core muscles. Another variation is to do this side to side. It’s the same concept, but instead of moving your leg back, you move it to the side. The water creates natural resistance, but you can also add some ankle weights if you can use additional resistance.
I hope you find these water exercises helpful as I did. I spent a lot of time in the pool on my road to recovery. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
Thank you for reading!