If You Only Do 5 Exercises, a Physical Therapist Says These Are the Most Effective for Keeping You Pain-Free

Photo: Getty Images/Olga Rolenko
If the time or energy you have to move your body is limited—or maybe you’re just easing into this whole fitness thing—rather than rushing through a complicated, multi-part workout, a better strategy can be honing in on just a few specific exercises to prevent injuries and common problems like back pain. Because, although there are hundreds of moves out there with different benefits for your body, you don't need to do them all to stay healthy and pain-free.

But how to choose? Should you go for cardio or strength? Stretching or mobility? Bodyweight or weighted? You don’t have to figure it all out yourself, folks. When you're looking for exercises to prevent injuries, Mallory Behenna, DPT, a physical therapist with Brooks Rehabilitation in Florida, says you want to do moves that “work the main muscle groups that we see causing the majority of issues for people, whether that be pain or imbalance.” She calls these the best “bang for your buck” exercises, “because of their effectiveness and efficiency in working a lot of important muscle groups in a short amount of time.”

Experts In This Article

Dr. Behenna has narrowed the list down to five exercises meant to build strength and balance. And while they are each effective on their own, she suggests that doing them all is important for promoting overall health.

“All of the exercises selected target muscle groups that have to work together to keep us upright against gravity,” Dr. Behenna says. “When one or more of these muscle groups is weak, other muscles must compensate for that weakness to allow you to keep moving, which results in overall biomechanical inefficiency, dysfunction at muscles and joints, and potential pain over time.”

In addition to building strength, the exercises can also promote joint health, or mobility.

“Movement at a joint helps distribute and produce more synovial fluid, the fluid within the joint that helps with joint surface lubrication,” Dr. Behenna explains. “Having adequate synovial fluid allows the bones to move on one another with little friction, reducing overall pain and inflammation and promoting better mobility.”

To actually make these exercises to prevent injuries a part of your life, Dr. Behenna recommends habit stacking them with a meal or something else you do every day. But if you want to break it up, do one exercise at a time for the recommended reps and sets, since the goal is to fatigue the muscle, which builds strength.

“Doing the exercises at all is superior to not doing them, so if the only way you can get them done is to break them up throughout the day, then do so,” Dr. Behenna says.

A physical therapist’s top 5 exercises to prevent injuries

You can start doing Dr. Behenna’s top five exercises right now: All you need is some space to move around, potentially a softer surface (like a mat), and a wall or ledge for support. A couch can also come in handy.

1. Plank

One of the most loved and hated core exercises around gets top billing in this list. “Planks work your core stability and endurance, which helps with overall balance and stability as well as protecting your spine,” Dr. Behenna says.

Directions: Hold your body in the top of a push-up position. Aim to hold for 60 seconds at a time.

Form mistakes to avoid: “Letting the hips either rise up or sag down too far. You want to be in a perfectly straight line from head to foot. If you cannot hold that straight line, you can modify the movement by holding yourself on your knees or forearms.”

2. Step-ups

Exaggerating the act of going upstairs by working one leg at a time is a great way to build strength and balance. “Single-leg strengthening is often neglected, but it is very important as we do single-leg functional activities every day, including stepping up curbs or ascending and descending stairs,” Dr. Behenna says. “We can develop a preference over time as to which limb leads in these activities, leading to an asymmetry of strength in the left versus right leg, resulting in an overall imbalance or instability.”

Directions: Using the bottom of a staircase or a sturdy four- to eight-inch tall step stool, step up onto one leg. Place your hands on a railing, counter, or other surface if you feel imbalanced. Slowly lower yourself back down, then step back up. Repeat 10 to 15 times for three sets on each leg. To make this movement more challenging, you can bring your bottom knee toward your chest as you step up

Form mistakes to avoid: “Make sure the knee tracks over the second toe to strengthen the muscles properly and avoid stressing the joint and ligaments in the knee.”

3. Side-lying hip abduction

Dr. Behenna says she has seen dramatic improvement in clients when they learn to activate and strengthen their glutes, and these leg lifts are a great way to target the gluteus medius in particular. Even though you’re doing the move lying down on your side, it can lead to greater walking stability.

“When [the hip abductors] are weak, you can see the hip drop either away from or towards the weak side, which affects safety with walking and can lead to pain in the hips or lower back if prolonged over time,” Dr. Behenna says.

Directions: Lie down on one side of your body. Bend the bottom knee and keep the top knee straight. Lift the top, straight leg in the air, keeping your heel slightly behind your hip. Lower back down. Repeat 10 to 15 times, for three sets.

Form mistakes to avoid: “There are a myriad of ways to compensate while doing this exercise, but the most common ones I see are letting the foot drift forward, rolling the foot towards the ceiling, rotating the trunk back, or hiking the pelvis to move the hip. In order to activate the gluteus medius, the hip has to be in slight extension [meaning, that leg is reaching slightly behind you]. ”

4. Heel and toe raises

Working your calves will help keep you mobile by building strength and lengthening these often tight, knotted muscles. You’ll also activate the small muscles in your feet to help create a stable base for walking.

Directions: Stand next to a counter or railing, holding on with both hands for balance only. Rise up onto your toes, then lower back down. Repeat 30 times, for two sets. Next, keep your heels down and lift your toes up, and repeat 30 times, for two sets. To make it harder, try to do heel and toe raises with one foot at a time.

Form mistakes to avoid: “Using the arms too much to help you lift. The hands should only be for balance. Make the calf muscles lift you up to truly strengthen them.”

5. Hamstring and calf stretches

These stretches are the complement to those heel raises and step ups you just did. For exercises to prevent injuries, making sure your muscles aren’t wound up too tightly is just as important as ensuring that they’re strong. “When the hamstrings are tight, they can pull on the pelvis, causing more stress on the lower back when standing, which can lead to back pain over time,” Dr. Behenna says. “When the [calf] muscles are tight, it can cause foot and knee pain or limited mobility, as well as affect overall balance and stability.”

Directions: To stretch your hamstring, sit sideways on the edge of a couch with the outside foot on the floor and the inside leg straight in front of you on the couch. Keeping your knee and back straight, lean forward until you feel a stretch on the back of the thigh. Hold that stretch anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds and repeat three to five times on each leg.

To stretch your calf, stand facing a wall with both hands on the wall. Step one foot back into a small lunge. Keeping the heel of the back foot on the ground, lean forward until you feel a stretch in the calf of the back leg. Hold that for 15 to 30 seconds, and repeat three to five times.

Form mistakes to avoid: Don’t end your stretch too soon. Stretch for as long as you are comfortable, ideally 30 seconds per move

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