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The Simple Back Pain Reliever

The Simple Back Pain Reliever

The Simple Back Pain Reliever

When you lift, carry, walk, or run, your shoulders and hips move while the lumbar spine stays stable.  Prolonged sitting, age, and deconditioning can create tight hips/shoulders and a lumbar spine that is unable to hold a stable position.   Much of the mechanical back pain we treat in physical therapy is related to this stability/mobility issue.  A simple exercise that can retrain the neural control necessary to restore this essential movement skill is the bird dog.

The bird dog is commonly used in physical therapy and usually poorly performed in the fitness arena.  Three things to keep in mind.  You are moving your arms and legs, but the focus of the drill is keeping the lumbar spine still.  Lumbar stabilization needs time to neurally integrate, so you need to hold the bird dog pose for at least ten seconds. Work on developing a smoother and more graceful performance.  If you have mechanical lower back pain, a daily program of bird dogs can work wonders.  Symptom improvement can take six weeks of daily bird dog devotion.  Many report that the bird dog feels too easy to be beneficial.  Flawless technique is more important that exertion level.


Set up on all fours. The hands are beneath the shoulders and the knees

under the hips.  The thoracic spine should be slightly arched upward or flat.  Find a pain free “neutral spine” lumbar position.  A mirror is helpful for visual feedback on your performance.

You will move your opposite arm and leg during the bird dog exercise, but the focus of the drill is maintenance of a stable spine.  Stiffen the abdominal and back muscles so that the spine is held still and movement occurs at only the hip and shoulder.  Lift the right knee off the floor and extend the leg back.  The cue to keep in mind is “push the heel away”.  Do not over extend the hip.  Lift the left hand up off the floor and reach the arm forward.  A tight fist can help improve spinal stability.  Do not lift the arm higher than the shoulder.  Hold a solid bird dog position for ten seconds.  Lower back down and repeat the drill with the left leg and right arm.  Start with five repetitions on each side.


The progression of the basic bird dog is the “hold and sweep”.  A mirror can be helpful for feedback on performance.  Once again, the goal is to hold the spine stationary while moving the arms and leg.  Perform the bird dog position and then every ten seconds sweep the opposite arm and leg toward each other while holding the spine stable.  Ten second hold–sweep the arm and leg–ten second hold–sweep the arm and leg.  Perform five hold and sweep repetitions.

Watch the video here

Michael S. O’Hara, PT, OCS, CSCS

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