How to Tone Your Arms Safely While Having Back Pain

Danh NgoLow Back Pain, Uncategorized

Many head to the gym to work out with a purpose of losing weight or to build muscle.  If you are looking to shed fat and firm up your body (aka “tone up”), but have back pain, you are left guessing with a trial and error system.

You either try a weight machine, hoping that it does not tease your back to tense up, or stick with super easy exercises that you know will not do anything but cause you to give up.

The Myth Of Toning


Before we dive into how to help yourself, we have to help you to understand a big common misunderstanding.  You cannot choose to tone up your arms by doing thousands of bicep curls and tricep presses.  Cardio based exercises are not separate from muscle strengthening exercises.


The definition of how muscle physiology works is that a muscle appears to shrink as it shed layers of fat and add muscle via an increased ability to store glycogen (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) and muscle fiber size (myofibrillar).

The Myth of Upper Body Workouts

The premise of this myth is that your upper body, core, and lower body are all separate.  Our body works as a team and muscles are connected via the fascia system.

There is a valid concern that an uninformed exercise can tense up your back muscle spasm.  The good news is that we will teach you to leverage this fascia system to allow you to tone up your arm without any worries about muscle spasm.


What the Research Shows on How to Tone Up?

The summary and the protocol that we will show is to use the heaviest weight that your body can handle as a whole without causing pain and sacrifice form.  In our popular community talk called “How to Exercise Safely While In Pain“, we emphasize that if movement hurts, take the movement out of the equation.

Caloric intake matching up to your desired body weight is crucial to allow your body to appear like you toned up.  You cannot choose to lose fat in a chosen area so counting calories will help your objective of toning up as a whole.

Exercises Options (no back pain)

Rotator Cuff Exercises: Lay on your side and grab a 3 to 5 pouimages-2nds dumbbell.  Start with the weight at your navel.  Place a towel between your upper arm and torso.  Slowly breath while trying to expand your navel region, like you just ate a dinner.

Repeat for 8 reps for 5 sets.

Why? Your rotator cuff is the “core” of your upper body.  You want to wake these up as you are providing a stronger base of support for your biceps and triceps.

Downward Dog Pose: 266_hp_side12_450

Get into a full push-up position.  Using your hands, drive your tailbone up towards the ceiling while keeping your navel relaxed and out.

Hold for 20 seconds for 2 reps.

Why?  This is a great total body movement that wakes up your scapular muscles and teaches a healthy spine bending position.  Your scapula muscles are another “core” group of your upper body.

If this hurts, then stay at a full plank position and hold.

If this still hurts, flex your back of your thighs tight and think about pushing your body away from the ground.  This will kick in your upper body core to work with your trunk core muscles.

Reverse Pick Me Up Lunges (need a partner for this)

download-4.jpgYou have to work your legs heavy in order to tone up your arms.  Your legs are filled with muscles with the largest amount of muscle fibers.  The problem with lunges is that we rarely see people perform lunges that are safe for the back.

Grab dumbbells that feel mildly heavy for you.  As you plan to get into a 1/2 kneeling position (see picture), place the dumbbells where your arms will be.

Get into a 1/2 kneel position.  Grip the dumbbells as tight as you can, especially through the ring and pinky finger.  Stand up into a split stance position (do not move your feet position as you stand up).  Have someone grab the weights and place it down on the ground for you.  Repeat this 10 times.  If the 10th repetition feels easy then increase the weights.

HINT: A common bad technique that stresses your spine is to sick your buttock back as you get up.  You are loading your hip joint instead of using your core to get up.

Why?  This exercise allows you to focus on the easy part of a complex leg exercise.  You can add dumbbells and challenge your arms because of this factor.

Overhead Box Squat Jumps with Qi Gong Breathing


Grab a tennis ball.  Sit down on a box or stool and sit on the tennis ball.  Inhale and breath into the tennis ball from down below (think to expand your belly as you breathe in, but focus on the tennis ball with your expansion).  Maintain the breathing while raising both arms up as high as you can (not shown in picture).

Drive the back of your feet into the ground like you are a rocket and jump up as high up as you can.  Recover back into a standing position and not a squat position.  We are skipping the return back to a squat until you seek back care help with a trained Holistic Physical Therapist.  Repeat 20 times.  Less rest time the better as you want a high heart rate for fat burning purposes.

Why?  This is a great exercise that serves 3 purposes.

  1. You are doing jumping exercises that will train your spine to load.  Yes, your spine does need this, but strategically.
  2. You are focusing on full range of motion to your arms which will unlock your true arm strength potential.  Yes, you can get stronger with fewer exercises if you are starting off with stiff shoulders.
  3. This is a total body leg emphasis workout which will help to burn more fat.




Arm across your chest stretches

1a. Downward dog, hold 15-20 seconds x 3 reps.  Your rest time is to do your 1b exercise (see below)

1b. Arm across your chest stretches, hold 30 seconds.

2a. Biceps Curls in split stance position, 8 reps (weights should be heavy where if you did 10 reps it would be too hard) x 5 sets at rest of 1 min (during this rest you are doing the 2b exercise)

2b. Rotator Cuff Exercises, 8 reps x 4 sets at rest of 1 min

3a. Tricep Press (Cable or dumbbell) in split stance, 8 reps (weights should be heavy where if you did 10 reps it would be too hard) x 5 sets at rest of 3 min (during this rest you are doing the 3b exercise)

3b. Overhead Box Squat Jumps with Qi Gong Breathing x 20 reps

4a. Seated Cable rowing exercises, 8 reps (weights should be heavy where if you did 10 reps it would be too hard) x 5 sets at rest of 3 min (during this rest you are doing the 4b exercise)

4b. Reverse Pick Me Up Lunges x 5-8 reps


Biceps Curls in split stance

Triceps Press in split stance

Seated Cable Rowing in split stance

1-Arm Split-Stance Cable Row



If you need assistance with a specific back pain concern and do not want to guess your way to a healthier you, click on the blue button to schedule your complimentary phone call appointment.  The phone call will help you understand what is you can do to stay active.



Dr Danh Ngo

Doctor in Physical Therapy

Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Specialist