How to Recover from a Back Injury

How cardio exercise can help with weight loss
Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 ride stationary bikes for cardio exercise in the gym at Camp Natasha, Afghanistan. (Chief Petty Officer Ryan Wilber/Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74)

Back injuries can cause people to miss work or even force them to quit altogether. These injuries can be debilitating to the point where any movement involves intense pain.

In some cases, surgery is the only option and, even then, there are risks followed by long periods of recovery. Building a strong core and maintaining that basic strength and stability is essential to helping you prevent or quickly recover from common accidental back injuries.

Here is a question that goes a bit above my pay grade, so I will reference some of the highly recommended advice from Stuart McGill, one of the most respected teachers in the field.

Stew, I have been on a downward slide over the last 15 years. I gained too much weight (over 80 pounds), hurt my back, lost most of the weight but needed back surgery. Now, I am post-surgery and post-rehab. I still need to lose some 15-20 pounds. What do you recommend doing at this point? Thanks John P.

John, any time a person who's had back surgery asks me a question, I mention Stuart McGill. He's written numerous books on the human body, with a focus on the spine. You should consider reading "Back Mechanic," the book in which he introduces the McGill Big Three. These are three safe and effective exercises that you most likely have done in your postoperative physical therapy: the side plank, the bird dog and the McGill curl-up pose.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) demonstrates the poses and describes them in the corresponding article.

The first two poses are straight out of basic yoga, but the curl-up is not your normal military test curl-up, an exercise that looks more like a crunch or half sit-up. This curl-up is more supportive of the lower back and is an isometric flex of the abdominal and hip muscles.

After back surgery, I would limit or eliminate the sit-up or crunch from your exercise selection. This series of exercises, plus a few others from "Back Mechanic," only will take you 10-15 minutes a day. You should do these daily, along with some of his recommended lower-back stretches.

The other activity that will help you is walking. If walking hurts, try a non-impact option like a recumbent bike, elliptical trainer or swimming. Combine this cardio with some basic calisthenics, like push-ups, squats, lunges, climbing stairs and maybe even pull-ups and dips, as you rebuild your strength. Losing more weight will help with all of these calisthenics exercises as well as with your walking.

Too many people underestimate the power of walking and drinking more water for general health and wellness. I have seen people who just added water and walking to their day steadily lose 75-80 pounds in a year. If you can take out soda and other high-calorie drinks and foods, that weight loss will occur even faster.

Combined with McGill's Big Three exercises, you have a system of training that will maintain your core strength, decrease weight and make you more mobile for decades to come.

The last thing you ever want to do on your recovery journey is nothing after all of your weight loss and surgery. In fact, you may find that doing nothing actually will cause you pain. You have to do some form of movement, static hold and activity. Otherwise, you will not build the strength and stability that you need to support daily living without reinjury.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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