Stop Low Back Pain with Dr. Stuart McGill’s “Walking Program”, Back Balm

This article is a transcribed edited summary of a video Bob and Brad recorded in September of 2021. For the original video go to

Bob: Today we’re going to talk about how to stop low back pain with Dr. Stuart McGill’s walking program. It’s kind of nature's back balm.

Brad: I know right away, when people have back pain, they say, my back bothers me when I walk it hurts. Well, we’re going to show you a specific system that Dr. McGill has come up with, so that you can get into walking and get that pain away and get you back to functioning again.

Bob: Let’s get into it.

Brad: Right on. So, now this is not meant for if you have sciatica. Pain down the leg, there is another modified walking program, but you can still learn some things you can learn from this because there’s crossovers. The first thing you want to do if you’ve got lower back pain and we want to get into walking, we’re going to plan on walking on a flat surface. No inclines, declines, or rough surfaces, bad terrain, anything like that. And you’re just going to stand up with good posture. Go ahead, Bob. Bob, you like to do this more so than I.

Bob: It’s just a kind of a check. I like to take my hand and grab the wrist on the opposite side and pull back a little bit and it just straightens me out. So, I see a lot of people are a little bit flexed like this.

Brad: And you may not even be aware of it.

Bob: Right, and this kind of jolts you back to reality, where you should be.

Brad: Yeah, kind of pull and feel the shoulders go back. The idea is back pain is oftentimes from a slightly flexed forward posture that you’re not aware of. So, we want to get that and get the strain of our body weight and our trunk through that low back.

Bob: I’ve said this before, Brad but I’ve seen some runners in our neighborhood that I just want to stop them, get behind them, and straighten out their backs because they’re running bent forward.

Brad: Don’t do that though, Bob.

Bob: I won’t, I won’t.

Brad: The next thing is once you get up tall and you feel like you have the back pain under control, and you may have to tilt your pelvis a little bit.

Bob: Yeah, one way or the other.

Brad: Find that most comfortable position and then you want to tighten up you core muscles, so your abdominal muscles, like your natural back belt is going to control that posture.

Bob: This can make a big difference. You might be in pain the entire time and walk, but if you tighten your abdomen just a little bit, sometimes it can take away the pain.

Brad: So, it’s a combination of proper posture position, that core tightening of the abdomen, and then at this point, don’t just take off walking. Dr. McGill talks about, just march in place, not a high march, but knees up about halfway. Shifting the weight right to left. Test and see how that feels. If that’s feeling good, still keeping that core tight, then we’re going to start to walk. Now, we understand that your back may be bothering you and you maybe only get five, maybe 10 steps and it starts to hurt. You stop. Sit down, relax it. Make sure you sit with good posture, of course, and then go back to it within an hour or so. Then repeat this and the goal is go from that 5-10 steps to 10-15 and each day you’ll find you’re going a little bit further and you’re going to learn a little bit each time you work on it.

Bob: Yeah, what position feels the best for your back.

Brad: It’s really a good way to understand your body positioning. You’re going to learn that proprioceptive skills that we call it in therapy very well.

Bob: Now, what happens over time is, as you get more moving, you get more blood flow to the back. It acts like a lubricant almost or nature’s balm.

Brad: That’s that term, balm. I don’t like that term. It just sounds kind of weird to me. But I looked it up and it’s accurate. So, Dr. McGill is right on. Oh, another important thing he does mention is swing the arms from the shoulder joint, so we’re not walking, I’m exaggerating.

Bob: Right, the robot.

Brad: And of course, the right arm goes with the left leg, but if you think about that, you’ll probably screw it up. Just walk normally. Then a little bit brisker pace. You’re not walking slow and testing it, you know, be a little courageous there, arms swinging, and then pick up the speed a little bit and that’ll take the stress off the back slightly, and it can feel better. I’m not talking power walking, and we’re just talking faster than that slow cautious walk.

Bob: I find it interesting; I think Dr. McGill found it to be true is that there’s less weight on the back when you pick up the speed, the pace. I tried this with a patient of mine. He came in limping terribly, and he didn’t have sciatica, so this did work for him. He looked like he had just been run over by a truck. I started working just to work on walking to start off with. Went over some of these things, had him walk at a higher pace. By the end of the session, he was whipping his way around. He had the biggest smile on his face, like, wow!

Brad: And I think that’s what a lot of people can experience if you take your time with this.

Bob: Well, I think they’re afraid they’re going to hurt their back. And generally, it’s not going to hurt their back. It’s going to help your back and it’s a good thing to do, not only just once a day, but Dr. McGill recommends four times a day.

Brad: Well, on this program, he said once you get up to 30 minutes, walk 30 minutes three times a day. That’s what he recommended. Again, take your time and start out at 5-ten steps. It may take a few weeks or hopefully it settles in faster than that.

Bob: Yeah. Three times a day that coincides with meals. I mean, as a reminder you can do it after breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Brad: Absolutely. And you feel good about eating, you know? You’re working things out. Things will move better.

Bob: So, walking. One of the best things you can do. I know I had a friend and I’ve told this story many times. He worked at a back clinic. He was a physical therapist. That’s the first thing they would do with back patients is get them walking. By far, that was the number one thing he did.

Brad: I wonder how many patients were like, I came here to learn how to walk?

Bob: Yeah, right. This is what you give me? Where’s the modalities? Where’s the exercise?

Brad: Aren’t you going to put a hot pack on? Sometimes the simple things work the best. So, carry on with your walking and be careful.

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