Do you feel a twinge or, even worse, a sharp pain in your lower back when you do ab exercises? Do you have a history of lower back pain? Then, the last thing you want to reactivate an old injury or cause a new one. Still, core training is one of the best things you can do to prevent lower back pain, as long as you do it correctly. Certain abdominal exercises place stress on your spine and lower back. For example, sit-ups and crunches activate your hip flexors. Most people with lower back pain already have tight hip flexors. That’s why crunches and sit-ups aren’t the best ab exercises if you have lower back problems. What exercises can you safely do when you have a history of lower back pain?
Abdominal Exercises: Planks
Planks strengthen your abdominals as well as the muscles in your core that support your spine and when you do them correctly your spine is in a neutral position. Plus, unlike some ab exercises, planks work the stabilizing muscles in your back. Doing them regularly is one of the best ways to prevent future lower back pain. Plus, if you use correct form, planks don’t place excessive strain on your back. However, if you feel back pain when you do them, stop. You’re probably using incorrect form. Some of the most common mistakes are arching your lower or mid-back. Doing this compresses the lower vertebrae in your back. That’s why form is so critical when you have a history of lower back pain.
Front planks mainly work the muscles in front and back of your pelvis. Target your obliques by doing side planks, holding the position as long as you can without letting your hips sag. This move recruits more stabilizing muscles than front planks and introduces more of a balance challenge. As long as you use good form, it’s safe for your back too. Strong obliques help to stabilize your spine and pelvis.
Are you using good form? Have someone snap a photo while you’re doing planks. If you’re doing front planks, your body should be in a straight line and your spine should be neutral. You may not realize your form is sloppy. A photo can help fine-tune your technique to avoid future back problems. Keeping your spine neutral places the least stress on the structures that support your spine. Don’t let your form slip just because you want to hold the position longer. Go for quality rather than quantity.
Abdominal Exercises: The Bird Dog
The bird dog is another move that effectively targets the ab and core muscles without placing excess strain on the back. How do you do one? Position yourself on your hands and knees with your hands shoulder-width apart. Lift one arm off the floor at the same time that you lift the opposite arm out in front of you. Hold the arm and leg as straight as you can so that your body forms a straight line. Maintain the position for 10 seconds and then slowly return to the starting position. Switch the arm and leg that you use and repeat.
Abdominal Exercises: Pelvic Tilts
Pelvic tilts strength your abdominal muscles and the stabilizing muscles in your core without straining your lower back. To do this exercise, lie on an exercise mat with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Push your back against the mat as you tighten your abdominal muscles. Now, tilt your pelvis upward and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 to 15 times. If you sit in a chair most of the day, a common cause of low back pain, this is an exercise you should do regularly.
Abdominal Exercises: Bridges
Bridges are another isometric exercise that target your ab and core muscles without placing a strain on your back. To do one, lie on an exercise mat with your heels flat on the floor and your knees bent. Slowly raise your hips upward while squeezing your buttocks together. Stop when your hips, knees, and shoulders are in a straight line. Hold the position isometrically for 10 seconds and slowly return to the starting position. Repeat 10 to 15 times. Be careful not to use momentum or arch your back as you do this movement.
Abdominal Exercises: Knee to Chest
The knee to chest movement is a safer alternative to leg raises for working your abs. Lie on a mat with your knees bent and both feet firmly planted on the floor. Slowly raise one knee toward your chest while keeping the other leg in place. Hold this position for 30 seconds before switching legs. Keep your lower back flat against the floor throughout the movement.
Exercises to Avoid with Lower Back Pain
Exercises to avoid when you have lower back pain are those that primarily target the hip flexors. When you pull on your hip muscles, you place a strain on your spine and lower back. One of the worst exercises is the old standard – the sit-up. Crunches, too, can aggravate lower back pain since they involve spinal flexion. You should also avoid exercises that involve twisting of the waist and spine, especially if you have active back pain
If you do crunches, stick to partial ones. Only bring your neck and shoulder off the floor rather than lifting your entire back. Be sure not to pull on your neck as you lift your head up.
The Bottom Line
If you have back pain, only do exercises that don’t aggravate the discomfort – and don’t forget about the warm-up. Never train, especially if you have a history of back problems, without increasing your core body temperature and warming up the muscles you’re working beforehand. Also, if you have persistent back pain, talk to your doctor before working your abs. Don’t forget to do 5 to 10 minutes of stretching, including hip flexor stretches, after a workout.
Don’t shy away from abdominal exercises if you have lower back pain, unless, of course, your doctor recommends it. Instead, choose ones that won’t aggravate the discomfort and stop if you experience pain. Strengthening your ab and core muscles will create more stability and support for your spine and, hopefully, prevent future back pain.
Harvard Health Publications. “Want a stronger core? Skip the sit-ups”
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