When most people think about the benefits of exercise, they think about how exercise strengthens your muscles. While that is certainly true—particularly when considering resistance training— exercise can also be beneficial for strengthening your bones as well. Any weight-bearing exercises will help you there, but in particular, when it comes to exercises to strengthen your spine, you’re gonna want to try strength training.
Although some amount of bone loss is expected as you age, you can help prevent it happening prematurely and strengthen your spine with consistent exercise. To learn more about how to build a strong spine, as well as the best exercises to strengthen your spine, we spoke with Nick Voci PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Manchester Physical Therapy.
The spine is composed of 33 vertebrae separated into different regions: seven cervical vertebrae in the neck, 12 thoracic vertebrae in the upper and mid back, seven lumbar vertebrae in the low back, five fused vertebrae, which form the sacrum, the part of your spine that connects to your pelvis, and the coccyx (tailbone). Keeping these bones of the spine healthy and strong is vital for maintaining posture, function, mobility, and overall health.
“Weakness within the bones in your spine, or vertebrae, can be far-reaching due to the proximity of important structures such as nerves and their role of establishing a support for most other muscles and limbs to pull from,” explains Dr. Voci. “Some of the risks include things such as osteoporosis [a medical condition characterized by weakened and porous bones, increasing the risk of fractures and breaks], chronic pain, posture abnormalities like kyphosis [a spinal disorder that causes an abnormal forward curvature of the upper back, leading to a hunched or rounded appearance], loss of motion, loss of function, and balance problems.”
Dr. Voci says that any of these spinal issues can lead to decreased activity levels and function, which trickle down to having a more sedentary lifestyle and worsening health outcomes.
Although mild weakness or bone thinning in the spine may not be detectable at first, Dr. Voci says that weakness in your spine will present with a host of signs and symptoms once it becomes severe enough. “There can be many signs and symptoms associated with weak vertebrae such as increases in fractures, postural abnormalities like kyphosis, loss of height, increase in back stiffness, including rib stiffness and difficulty breathing, and an increase in back pain.”
The good news is that Dr. Voci says that exercise can be a powerful and effective tool for strengthening the spine.
“First and foremost, our bodies respond to the demands put on them, so to improve bone density, we want to stress those bones by both introducing muscle pull on the bone and adding weight to the bone,” he says. “For this reason, weight-bearing, or standing exercises, are best because they engage many of your trunk muscles, which in turn pull on your bones and make them stronger.” Adding load by using free weights or resistance bands increases the bone building capabilities of movements.
Dr. Voci says there are several different types of exercise that can improve bone density in the spine, and including a combination of several types of them in to your fitness routine is the best way to have a healthy spine.
“Walking is a great exercise for cardiovascular [fitness] that also improves bone density due to weight-bearing, and should be done daily,” says Dr. Voci. “Depending on your health or fitness level, activities like jumping rope or running will introduce higher levels of stress that can be more beneficial to spine health, but can also be a higher risk on other joints of your body, so people with lower levels of fitness may need to perform lower-impact activities like walking, swimming, or biking to get their cardiovascular and general fitness levels up before introducing higher-intensity activities.”
Aside from cardio exercise for bone density, Dr. Voci says that weight-bearing strength training exercises are among the best types of exercise for increasing bone density because strength training loads the muscles and bones. He recommends that everyone incorporate weight-bearing strength training two to three times a week to support a healthy spine.
Dr. Voci walked us through three of the best strength training exercises to build a stronger spine.
“This exercise strengthens hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles, which will all pull on your pelvis and vertebrae either directly or through fascia to promote bone growth,” explains Dr. Voci. “It is also a weight-bearing exercise, which stimulates bone growth.” You can perform RDLs with free weights like dumbbells—beginners can start with just body weight.
How to: Begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. This is your start position. Hinge at the hips and push your butt back while maintaining a slight bend in your knees, lowering your torso toward the floor until your weights come in line with your shins—do not arch or round your back. Return to the standing position by engaging your hamstrings and glutes. That’s one rep. Repeat for 8–12 reps. (You can also do this with a mini resistance band by placing one side of the loop under your feet and holding onto the opposite end with both hands.)
Dr. Voci says rows strengthens the rhomboids in the upper back and the smaller muscles that run along the length of the spine. These muscles pull on your thoracic, cervical, and lumbar vertebrae to promote bone growth.
How to: Start standing with your feet under your hips hold a dumbbell in each hand, arms straight. Maintain a soft bend in your knees, then hinge at the hips, lower your torso either to a 45-degree angle or parallel to the floor. Bend both elbows straight back, and pull the weights narrow toward the bottom of your ribcage. Re-extend your arms. That’s one rep. Repeat for 8–12 reps.
Squats are a foundational lower-body strengthening exercise, but because it is a weight-bearing exercise, it also helps strengthen the spine. “This exercise strengthens hamstrings, glutes, and quad muscles, which will all pull on your pelvis and vertebrae either directly or through fascia to promote bone growth,” says Dr. Voci.
How to: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing straight forward. Hinge at your hips and push your butt back as if you are sitting back into a chair. Keep your weight back toward your heels, but balanced evenly between both feet. Bend your knees to lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor, ensuring your back stays straight (avoid rounding or arching). Make sure your knees track in line with your toes. Push through your heels to straighten your legs and extend your hips as you rise back to the starting position. That’s one rep. Repeat for 8–12 reps. (You can opt to hold hand weights to increase the intensity of the exercise once you’ve got your form under control.)
Ensure you start with light weights and gradually build up, Dr. Voci advises. “We want to expose our body to a gradual new level of stress and allow it to adapt,” he says.
Dr. Voci also says that you should not be experiencing pain with any of these moves. If you are, you should work with a fitness professional or a physical therapist for either an individualized back-strengthening program or to help you work on form and technique.
“Many of ‘the best’ exercises are technical exercises that may require some training before getting the best results,” says Dr. Voci. “Consulting with a physical therapist can provide the best exercises based on your available motion and strength. They are best trained to modify and tailor these exercises to minimize the risk of injury and tailor to specific needs.”
But if you aren’t experiencing pain, incorporating these exercises two to three times per week—as well as cardio as Dr. Voci described—can help you build a stronger spine in no time.