When most of us think about exercising with lower back pain, we think about workarounds. As in, “is that squat going to hurt? And what variations can I sub in to prevent a flare-up?”
But, according to new research, we should actually be asking, “what can I do to strengthen my core?” After all — while four out of five people will battle back pain at some point in their lives, per the American Chiropractic Association — the 2018 study from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center shows that weak core muscles in runners (and, probably, any exerciser) can increase the risk of lower back pain. Meanwhile, 2017 research out of Pakistan shows that performing core stabilization exercises is more effective than traditional physical therapy at reducing lower back pain.
Why? Because the deep-lying core muscles, such as the transverse abdominis (which hook in and around the spine) serve to stabilize the body’s entire midsection, explains Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault flexibility and mobility online program. But when one muscle, or group of muscles, is weak, another one is forced to pick up the slack, he says.
RELATED: 6 Core Exercises to Make You a Stronger, Faster Runner
For example, in The Ohio State study, researchers found that when people’s deep core muscles were weak, running placed excess stress on their more superficial core muscles, as well as the spine. Over time, these compensations can cause wear and tear and painful overuse injuries, Wickham explains.
Unfortunately, most of us head into our workouts with pretty weak, inactive core muscles. (Thanks, desk job.) That’s why, to both ease and reduce the risk of mid-workout back pain, Wickham recommends adding core exercises to your pre-workout warm-up.
Start with these six core exercises, courtesy of Wickham, performing them back-to-back before any workout or as a standalone core workout.
RELATED: 7 Ways Exercise Helps Relieve Back Pain
- The Core Workout to Help Relieve Lower Back Pain
- Want Six-Pack Abs? 6 Core Exercises That Won’t Hurt Your Back
- 1. McGill curl-ups
- 2. Pallof press
- 3. Bird dog
- 4. Side planks
- 5. Seated leg lifts
- 6. Stability ball planks
- GET MORE WORKOUT MOTIVATION
- Ab Exercises For a Bad Back
The Core Workout to Help Relieve Lower Back Pain
1. Dead Bug
How to: Lie flat on your back with your arms and legs up in the air, knees bent and arms straight. Press your lower back into the floor, and brace your core (a). From here, lower one leg until your heel just about touches the floor while also lowering your opposite arm toward the floor above your head (b). Pause, then squeeze your core to lift them back up to return to start (c). Repeat with the opposite arm and leg (d). Continue alternating for 30 seconds. Repeat three times.
2. Low Side Plank Hold
How to: Get into a side plank on your forearm and knees so that your shoulder is directly over your elbow and your knees are stacked on top of each other and in line with your shoulders. Brace your core and hold. Don’t let your hips rotate or sag. Repeat on the opposite side. Perform two 20-second holds per side. If that’s too easy, raise up off of your knees (as shown above) so that you’re still balancing on your forearm, but with feet stacked.
RELATED: Ab Challenge: 5 Planks to Sculpt Your Core
3. Segmented Cat-Camel
How to: Start on your hands and knees, wrists under shoulders and knees under hips (a). Squeeze your core and glutes and round your back up toward the ceiling, tucking your chin to your chest (b). From here, slowly reverse the arch in your back, starting at your tailbone and ending at your neck. Continue until your entire back is curved toward the floor and you look up toward the ceiling (c). Now reverse the motion, starting at your neck and moving back down toward your tailbone to return to the starting position (d). That’s one rep, which should take a minimum of 15 seconds. Complete 5 reps.
4. Bird Dog
How to: Start on the floor, on your hands and knees with wrists under shoulders and knees under hips. Look toward the floor, just in front of your hands. Brace your core to maintain a flat tabletop position (a). From here, extend one arm and the opposite leg up and away from your body so that they are parallel to the floor (b). Pause for three seconds, then slowly lower to return to start (c). Repeat on the opposite side (d). That’s one rep. Perform two sets of 8-12 reps.
RELATED: Quick Lower Ab Exercises for a Stronger Core
5. Pallof Press
How to: Stand in a quarter squat with one side of your body facing a cable station. Hold the cable’s handle with both hands at navel-height (a). From here, press the handle straight out in front of you, making sure your body doesn’t turn to one side (b). Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start (c). Perform 12-15 reps, then repeat on the opposite side.
6. Lying Windshield Wipers
How to: Lie face-up on the floor with your arms straight out from your sides. Raise your feet off of the floor so that your knees and hips are bent to 90 degrees, and press your low back into the floor. Brace your core to maintain this position (a). From here, keeping your legs together, slowly lower your legs as far as you can to one side without lifting your shoulders or low back off of the floor (b). Pause, then reverse the movement to return start (c). Repeat on the opposite side (d). That’s one rep. Perform 8 reps.
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Want Six-Pack Abs? 6 Core Exercises That Won’t Hurt Your Back
No two people’s fitness goals are exactly the same because no two bodies are alike. While these differences lead us to prioritize certain exercises or muscles, just about everyone includes a sculpted stomach on their wish list. This can be problematic for those who find themselves suffering from lower back pain because many traditional core exercises that help achieve six-pack abs can negatively impact the spine.
We have a solution! Try these six moves that will help you strengthen your core muscles and not leave your back aching.
1. McGill curl-ups
Try out this core exercise that won’t hurt your back. | iStock.com
Lie on the ground with one leg extended, toe pointed at the ceiling, and the other leg bent with your foot flat on the floor. Place your hands under the arch of your back to support its natural shape. Some people may need to stack one hand on top of the other, depending on how high their arch is. Contract your abdominal muscles to pull your shoulders off the floor as you would with a crunch. Move slowly and hold the top of the move briefly before returning to the starting position. Check out Abs Experiment for a useful visual.
2. Pallof press
Standing core exercises can help alleviate back pain. | iStock.com
Attach a single-grip handle to a cable tower with your right side facing the tower. Grab the handle with both hands and step about an arm’s length away from the tower, keeping your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands directly in front of your chest. Keeping your core tight, press your arms forward until they’re fully extended. Bodybuilding.com recommends holding the position for several seconds before returning to the starting position. Repeat until you complete your desired number of repetitions. Switch sides, and repeat the move as before.
3. Bird dog
This core exercise can help you work on your balance as well. | Jacoblund/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Get into position on all fours with your knees directly below your hips and your hands directly below your shoulders. Keeping your back flat and your abs engaged, lift your right hand and left leg off the floor. Simultaneously extend your arm and leg so they’re pointing straight out so your body aligns. Hold for a few seconds, then switch sides. Head to ACE’s exercise library to see a demonstration.
4. Side planks
Side planks are great for the obliques. | iStock.com
Start by lying on your side with your body in a straight line. Use your forearm closest to the ground to prop up your torso while you raise your hips off the ground, pressing into the side of your foot. Your body should form a straight line from shoulders to feet. Hold the position without letting your hips sag for about one minute. Lower back to the ground and repeat on the opposite side. Head to Real Simple for a better idea of the move.
5. Seated leg lifts
Leg lifts are challenging, but great. | iStock.com/undrey
Sit on the ground with your legs extended straight in front of you, toes pointed up, and your hands on either side of you, palms facing down. Lean back just a bit, then lift one leg off the ground until your foot is six to 12 inches off the floor. Keeping your core tight, hold your leg in position for five seconds, then slowly lower it back to the ground. Repeat with the other leg. To see this move in action, head to Life by Daily Burn.
6. Stability ball planks
Adding the stability ball makes the move even more of a challenge. | iStock.com
You’ll need a stability ball to complete this move — and you’ll really feel it, too. Get in plank position, but rest your forearms on the stability ball for that added balance challenge. You can stay here and hold the move, but another option is to use your forearms to rotate the ball in circles. After 30 seconds, switch the direction of your rotation. And don’t forget to squeeze your core, glutes, and pelvis to keep them stable through the move. For an image of the exercise, head to Men’s Fitness.
Most people will experience lower back pain at some point in their life, it is very common. In the old days bed rest was prescribed if your back was “playing-up,” whereas today it is recommended to keep exercising. Of course the exercises you do have to be appropriate, we are not suggesting to go for a run or lift heavy weights, that wouldn’t be smart. However, there are some great exercises you can do which should help alleviate lower back pain. These exercises are extremely gentle, but of course, listen to your body and stop if you experience any pain.
The exercises work by stretching out muscles that are normally tight when you have lower back pain and strengthening muscles which tend to be weak. Of course, there are many reasons for having lower back pain, so it makes sense to get checked out by a physical therapist.
Make sure you warm-up your muscles before you stretch them. You should never bounce during stretching, and all stretches should be slow and gradual. Avoid over-stretching, stretch your muscles until you feel a slight stretch only, and hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds.
**Please get an accurate diagnosis of your back pain. If you want to know WHAT is causing your back pain we are experts at explaining what is causing your pain based on a thorough movement examination. Then we can explain what exercises will help and what will make it worse! We can help guide you with how to get in and out of bed and how to move around without making your back pain worse. If you want peace of mind of what is causing the pain and what you can do about it we would love to help!
1. Lower Tummy Strengthening
It is important to strengthen your lower tummy muscles because these muscles work in partnership with the lower back. This means if the lower tummy muscles are weak the lower back can tighten up, which can lead to lower back pain.
A great exercise for the lower tummy muscles is shown in the image below. It is extremely gentle and also very effective. Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Breathe in and as you breathe out bring one knee in towards your chest and as you breathe in return the foot to the floor. Repeat this exercise six to eight times on each leg.
If your back hurts at all then this exercise is not for you OR at least not yet.
2. Deep Abdominal Strengthening
A very important muscle to strengthen is the transverse abdominis, which provides a great deal of support for the lower back. In many people this muscle is extremely weak and this can lead to lower back pain. A very gentle and safe way to strengthen this muscle is shown below. To carry out this exercise lie on your back, place a small cushion under your head, and bend your knees. Your feet should be hip distance apart and placed on the floor. Keep your upper body relaxed and your chin gently tucked in. Take a deep breath in, and as you breathe out focus on drawing your belly button in towards your spine. Hold this gentle contraction for 5 to 10 seconds. As you breathe out relax your tummy muscles. This is a slow, gentle tightening so aim to use less than 25% of your maximum strength. Repeat five times.
3. Bird Dog
Mobilising your lower back is important to aid it’s recovery. The bird dog exercise is shown in the image below and is great for mobilising the lower back. To carry out this exercise get onto all fours, make sure your hands are directly under your shoulders, and knees directly under your hips. Your spine is in a neutral position and you need to keep your head in line with your spine. Take a deep breath in and as you breathe out extend one leg and the opposite arm to inline with your spine. You need to keep your spine in a neutral position at all times, so don’t let your lower back sag down. Hold for 5-10 seconds and as you breathe out lower both your leg and arm to the ground. Repeat this exercise eight to twelve times alternating sides.
Again there should be no pain with this exercise. And if you do it incorrectly you will feel more pain in the back the next day.
Another great exercise for mobilizing the lower back is the bridge, as shown in the image below. To carry out this exercise lie on your back with knees bent and your feet placed hip distance apart on the floor. Take a deep breath in and as you breathe out lift your hips off the floor until shoulders hips and knees are in a straight line. As you breathe in lower your hips to the floor. Repeat eight to twelve times.
Again you should not feel increased pain in your back with this exercise.
5. Pelvic Tilts
The Pelvic Tilt is another great exercise for mobilising your lower back muscles. As shown below, lie on your back and place a small cushion under your head. Bend your knees and keep your feet hip-width apart and placed on the floor. Keep your upper body relaxed and your chin gently tucked-in. Gently flatten your lower back into the floor and contract your stomach muscles. Now tilt your pelvis towards your heels until you feel a gentle arch in your lower back, feeling your back muscles contracting and return to the starting position. Place one hand on your stomach and the other under your lower back to feel the correct muscles working. Repeat eight to twelve times, tilting your pelvis back and forth in a slow rocking motion.
Again there should be no increase in low back pain. And truth be told it is much easier to do this after we have used our hands to mobilise the area and release the tightness.
6. Lower Back Stretch
Stretching your lower back is going to be really helpful in alleviating your lower back pain. Kneel on all fours, with your knees directly under your hips and hands directly under your shoulders. Ensure your spine is in a neutral position. Keep your head in line with your spine, your shoulders back and avoid locking your elbows. Take a big deep breath in and as you breathe out slowly take your bottom backwards towards your heels. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. As you breathe in bring your body up onto all fours again. Repeat six to eight times.
This stretch could make your back condition worse if you have a herniated disc. Discs do not like that amount of flexion. If you do not know what is causing your low back pain it would be wise to be evaluated.
7. Leg Stretch
It is very common for your hamstring muscles, which are found on the back of your legs, to be very tight when you experience lower back pain. For this reason it is recommended to stretch them out. You can see a great stretch for the hamstrings below. To carry out this exercise, lie on your back with both feet on the floor and knees raised up. Loop a towel under the ball of one foot. Straighten your knee and slowly pull back on the towel. You should feel a gentle stretch down the back of your leg, try not to overdo it. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat two times for each leg.
If you get numbness or sciatica with this stretch you should be careful and you should definitely be working with a physical therapist to help give you parameters to work in that do not irritate the nerve.
8. Piriformis Stretch
Another muscle which can be tight when you have lower back pain is the piriformis, a muscle in your butt. The stretch below is really effective in stretching this muscle, and very easy to do. To carry out the exercise, lie on your back and cross the right ankle over the left knee. Grip the thigh of your left leg and take a deep breath in. As you breathe out pull the knee in towards you. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. Repeat two times for each side.
Again this stretch may be too aggressive for acute low back pain. We can help modify it so you do not make it worse.
9. Hip Stretch
It is also good to stretch out your hip as your hip flexor muscles are very often tight when you have lower back pain. When the hip flexors are tight it can alter your posture leading to what is referred to as ‘donald duck posture’ where your butt sticks out too far. This tightens up your lower back and can lead to lower back pain. To stretch the hip flexors, kneel with one knee on the floor and the other foot in front with the knee bent. Push the hips forward and keep your back upright. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds. Repeat two times on each side.
10. Spine Stretch
This final stretch is great at stretching out your spine and it feels good to do, too. Lie on your back and place a small cushion under your head. Keep your knees bent and together. Keep your upper body relaxed and your chin gently tucked in. Take a big deep breath in and as you breathe out roll your knees to one side, followed by your pelvis, keeping both shoulders on the floor. Take a big deep breathe in as you return to the starting position. Repeat six to eight times, alternating sides.
This stretch will definitely aggravate a herniated disc. Please make sure you know what is causing your pain. That is what physical therapy can help you with. We provide a clear explanation and then explain how certain movements can make your condition worse and what will help. That way you know what classes and exercises are safe to do and which ones you need to eliminate. Happy to help! Inquire today and we will get in touch with you.
Article from LifeHack
The abdominals are a pain point for many gym goers. We habitually grab a mat, get down on our backs and start crunching away with the goal of finally carving out those elusive six-pack abs. But is this really the most effective way to work towards a toned midsection? The answer is no.
“When most people are doing crunches, they aren’t just wanting a stronger midsection, they’re looking for fat loss,” says Brian Bott, certified functional strength coach, founder of Aspire Fitness and co-author of “Get With the Program.” “When we think about core training, we focus on preventing movement rather than creating it. A lot of back injuries can be attributed to repeated flexing and extending of the spine. This is the exact movement you are doing performing a crunch. Yes, you feel them in your abs, but it’s not quite the way your core was designed to work and it comes at the expense of your back.”
According to Harvard Medical School, crunches are hard on your back, since they “push your curved spine against the floor and work your hip flexors, the muscles that run from the thighs to the lumbar vertebrae in the lower back.” When your hip flexors are too tight, they pull on your lower spine, which can cause lower back pain; plus, poorly performed crunches can also put strain on the neck. In addition to the potential for pain, sit-ups and crunches target just a few isolated muscles, and your core goes far beyond just abdominal muscles, so they aren’t the most effective use of your time.
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The good news: There are many other exercises that not only protect your back and neck, but work more of the core muscles, getting you more bang for your buck. “These exercises focus on getting your spine into a good position and maintaining that while your extremities are moving,” says Bott. “Instead of creating the movement, your muscles are working hard against it. Your abs still get a tremendous workout and there’s no worries of overuse.”
Work your core: Ab exercises that are better than crunches
Exercises listed in order of difficulty.
- Dying Bugs: Lie on your back with your arms straight up to the ceiling and your knees and hips bent to 90 degrees. Keeping your rib cage down extend your opposite arm and leg out taking a deep breath out.
- Leg Lowering: Again while lying on your back lift both legs up so that both feet are facing the ceiling. Then while keeping one leg straight up as if you had a hot cup of coffee on your foot, slowly lower the other leg down, as close to the ground as possible and then return to the top.
- Front Plank: Set up on your elbows and toes, don’t let the hips sag or pike up. Goal should be about 60 seconds before increasing the difficulty.
- Long Lever Front Plank: Same set up except we are going to move the elbows further forward.
- Front Plank (armlift/leg lift/combo of both): These are three quick progressions to make a plank more challenging if you’ve mastered the 60-second hold.
- Side Plank: Keep the elbow under the shoulder and shoulder away from the ear. This move targets the obliques. Again the goal should be 60 seconds. Once this is achieved we’d want to progress it to…
- Side Plank with Leg Lift: Maintain the same position and lift the top leg.
- Side Plank Band Row: Same description as side plank but with top arm perform a row using a band or cable to increase difficulty.
- 1/2 Kneeling Pallof Press: Set up on one knee with the inside knee down. Move out to a comfortable distance starting with the band pressed to your heart. From there reach your arms straight out keeping the core still and not letting it rotate.
- Ab Wheel Rollouts (ADVANCED PROGRESSIONS): Starting on your knees slowly roll your arms out maintaining a flat low back position.
- Hollow Holds (ADVANCED PROGRESSIONS): Starting on your back “sit up” and reach your hands and feet to the ceiling. Slowly start to lower your hands and feet only as far as you can keep the hollowed out position of your spine.
Products that will kick your ab workout into high gear
You don’t need a gym membership or expensive equipment to take your abdominal workout to the next level. Bott suggests picking up these small, affordable items to really feel the burn:
Ab Wheel: The ab wheel is a portable tool you can have on hand to enable you to progress to a more difficult exercise once you begin to develop your core strength.
Ab Dolly: A good alternative or regression to the ab wheel. The dolly allows you to stretch and strengthen all four abdominal muscles while simultaneously training your upper and lower body.
Bands: A great way to add resistance to core exercises, and they can also be used to work other muscle groups. Bott uses them in to activate the core in exercise like the 1/2 Kneeling Pallof Press.
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Let crunches be bygones. According to an editorial in Navy Times, the U.S. Navy is making moves to banish the traditional situp from their physical-readiness test, which sailors must pass twice each year. Crunches, the editorial says, are “an outdated exercise today viewed as a key cause of lower back injuries.” The Canadian Armed Forces, too, cut the outdated core exercise from its fitness test, suggesting concern over the risk for injury and its lack of connection to actual military work, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
So we consulted with our top trainers to pull together the toughest ab moves to replace the crunch. They’re not the craziest, most attention-getting tricks, but ones that will actually keep you building muscle after the initial gains have ended—and minimize injury and pain to your back. Mix them into your workout and take your routine to the next level. Because you can always be stronger.
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If you suffer from a bad back, you know just how frustrating it can be to do everyday tasks, including workouts and especially ab exercises. That’s because your core and your back are closely linked. In fact, your back muscles — including the lats in your upper back and the erector spinae, which run along your spinal cord — are actually considered a part of your core. So are your glutes and all the muscles in your belly area, including your abs, obliques, and transverse abdominis, the deep muscles that extend from your ribs to your pelvis and wrap around to your spine.
Why does this matter? Back pain can be caused by many factors, and it’s imperative that you talk to your doctor to determine what’s behind yours; but it’s possible that having a weak core might actually be to blame (as it was for this editor). Even if not, building strength in this muscle group has the potential to ease some of your pain.
Eric and Ryan Johnson, NSCA-certified trainers and cofounders of Homage Fitness, told POPSUGAR that core training can improve your stability, build a foundation of support, and get you on your way to relieving back pain. They also recommended consulting a doctor before you get started to rule out major health risks like spine injuries or even cancer.
Ab Exercises For a Bad Back
Once you’re cleared to work out, Eric and Ryan recommended four types of movement and several different exercises to strengthen your core. Don’t let the complicated names scare you; we’ll go over exactly how to do each move ahead.
- Foundational: Before you work the muscles, start by setting your breathing in sequence and working mobility through your hips, spine, and shoulders. Exercises: supine diaphragmatic breathing, assisted leg lowering, side-lying thoracic rotation, and bird dogs.
- Anti-Extension: resisting extension of your spine. Exercises: dead bug, elbow plank, and stir the pot.
- Anti-Rotation: resisting rotation in your lower back. Exercises: tall kneeling belly punch and standing landmine anti-rotation.
- Anti-Lateral Flexion: resisting sideways bending or movement from side to side. Exercises: side plank and one-arm farmer’s carry.
You can do one move from each category to activate your core at the beginning of a workout, or do them within your workout as a superset. Stop if you feel any pain, and focus on engaging your core through every slow, steady movement.
For many people who start training their abdominal muscles for the first time, they experience an ironic phenomenon: they feel a sharp pain in their low back. This seems strange since your abdominal muscles are on the front of your trunk and your low back is on the opposite side of your trunk. So how could the training of the former lead to pain in the latter? Most often this is caused by a muscle that not too many people talk about that gets involved during core exercises, your hip flexor muscle. This muscle assists you during these exercises in a way that applies direct, forward pressure to your spine. We’ll talk about why, and what you can do to stabilize your back during core work and prevent pain and damage to this area.
Most muscles in the human body do not act alone. They act in coordinating groups or patterns to accomplish a specific movement. For example, during a squat, you do not activate only your leg muscles; you also need your back, abdominal, hip, and even some shoulder muscles to stabilize the frame of your body and assist in completing the squat. Likewise, during most abdominal exercises, a muscle called the psoas major, also known as the “hip flexor” muscle, assists in the action. Use the picture above to better understand the positioning of this muscle and how it acts on the back. The hip flexor muscle is attached in two places: your thighs and your lower back bones. The muscle contracts and helps raise the legs in exercises like leg raises, v ups, sit ups, planks, Russian twists, and so much more. Because this muscle uses your lower spine as an anchor to pull from, it can cause the notorious lower back arch that most often causes pain during core exercises.
Fortunately, your body has a built-in method for avoiding this issue while using your hip flexor muscles: your abs. Your abs are positioned in front of your spine and therefore can resist the extension in the low back that causes the pain. Think of your abdominal muscles as the string on a bow, preventing the shaft from straightening out and hyperextending. If the string were to be cut or lose tension, the shaft can become distended or even bent in the opposite direction. In this same manner, if you do not consciously maintain tension in your abdominal muscles during a core exercise like planks, the spine will lose its support and hyperextend due to the forward force of the hip flexors. Focused, coordinated, isometric tension in the abdominal muscles during such exercises can maintain what’s known as a “neutral spine” position, in which the spine not overly curved in any direction. If this positioning can be maintained, most pain caused by core exercises will be alleviated. The main goal in mattress design is to create a bed with a calculated integrity that will allow the sleeper to maintain the neutral spine position for the same reason mentioned above.
In conclusion, the culprit of most back pain during core exercises is the tension applied by the hip flexor muscles and the lack of tension in the abdominal muscles to counteract. It is crucial to focus on these muscle groups during your core work and to learn how to maintain a straight, supported, neutral spine and prevent possible damage. Once you learn this skill, it will come natural to you without thinking!
If you would like to learn more about ways to properly exercise your core and the rest of the muscles in your body, click below to learn about scheduling a free session or give us a call at 330-702-1311 to talk more about your personal training options at Fitness Together!
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