Ab Training: Can the Quest to Get Defined Abdominals Lead to Back Pain?

Ab Training: Can the Quest to Get Defined Abdominals Lead to Back Pain?

Are you desperately trying to get ab definition? It’s a challenge, especially for women. To get defined abs, you have to hypertrophy the muscles with focused abdominal exercises AND reduce your body fat percentage enough for your newly defined muscles to show.

Unfortunately, if you’re prone towards back pain, some abdominal exercises can aggravate the problem. Even if you have a healthy back, spending too much time doing certain ab training exercises places a strain on your lower back. To get more defined abs without the lower back pain may require a few changes to your ab training routine.

Some Ab Training Exercises Can Worsen Lower Back Pain

At one time, sit-ups were the most popular and only abdominal exercise for many exercisers.  The problem with sit-ups is they can place stress and strain on your lower back and spine. When you consider the fact that some people do sit-ups three or four times a week – this can be a problem for some exercisers.

Another problem with sit-ups is they only target the most superficial muscle in the abdominal region, the rectus abdominis. What about the deeper abdominal muscles, like the transverse abdominis and the other muscles in your core that help keep it stable? We tend to ignore the transverse abdominis, or “corset muscle” that lies deep to the rectus abdominis and pulls everything in. A strong transverse abdominis creates that flat tummy look and also protects your spine.

Despite the negative press about full sit-ups, you need to strengthen your abs and the muscles in your back and trunk. Studies show 80% of all lower back pain is due to weak trunk muscles.

It’s about Balance

The best kind of ab training is balanced. If you focus most of your ab training on the superficial, rectus abdominis “six-pack” muscle and ignore your other core muscles, you create an unbalanced core that’s not in alignment. This places you at risk of injury, especially when you’re lifting heavy weights. That’s why balanced ab training is so important and that means working all of the muscles in your abdominal area and core. The muscle group most of us ignore is the transverse abdominis, the “corset muscle” that lies deep to the superficial rectus abdominis.

The Importance of Planks For Ab Training

To target the transverse abdominis, you need exercises that pull in your abdominal muscles, unlike sit-ups and crunches that push out on the abdominal wall. The ideal exercise that draws in the abdominal wall is the plank. In fact, the plank and its many variations are some of the best exercises you can do to strengthen your core in a balanced way. Few exercises are as effective in targeting your entire core in a single move.

The classic plank exercise is also called a front plank. Chances are, you’re already familiar with this exercise. To do it, you assume a push-up position with your forearms planted on the mat, your body in alignment, and your toes on the floor. Then, you hold this position for as long as you can without committing the “cardinal sins” of planks – letting your hips drop toward the ground or sticking your buttocks into the air. When you do this exercise correctly, you’re drawing in your abdominal wall. This helps strengthen your deep transverse abdominis.

How effective are planks? When you look at EMG data, a measure of what degree you’re activating muscles, it shows that planks target multiple muscle groups and ones that miss out when you do standard ab exercises like crunches. Not only are you strengthening the superficial and deep abdominal muscles, but you’re also activating the stabilizers that support your back and protect you against back injury and back pain.

By adding a few plank variations, you’ll hit your core muscles in different ways. Some plank variations to try are side planks (good for the obliques), walk-out planks, and planks with an arm or leg lift. For more advanced ab training, try side plank crunches to really target your obliques. Then, increase the calorie burn by doing plank jacks or mountain climbers. These variations are a good way to make a plank workout aerobic. Work on your balance by doing planks with your upper body on a stability ball.

Yes, planks really are a versatile exercise and one that can balance out other abdominal exercises like crunches. That main benefit being that planks are a multi-dimensional exercise that work multiple muscle groups whereas crunches work your superficial abdominal muscles in isolation.

The Bottom Line

It’s easy to get into a crunch rut when your time would be better spent working your abs and core in a more balanced manner. Sit-ups aren’t the only answer, especially if you have had back problems. Standard crunches work but primarily target your superficial abs (rectus abdominis). Make sure you’re doing crunch variations like bicycle crunches that target your obliques. An EMG study showed bicycle crunches are one of the most beneficial for activating your abdominals. Crunches on a stability ball also add a balance challenge that effectively targets your core. Vary your ab and core routine – but keep it balanced.



ACE Fitness. “5 Exercises to Flatten Your Stomach and Reduce Low Back Pain”

DailyMail.co. “Are sit-ups BAD for you? Exercise is ‘outdated, a key cause of lower back injury and should be replaced with the plank’

SuperAbs Resource Manual. Len Kravitz, Ph.D

ACE Fitness. “Reality Check: Are Planks Really the Best Core Exercise?”

American Council on Exercise. “Abs! Abs! Abs!

Journal of Sports Rehabilitation, 1997,6, 11 -20 Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.


Related Articles By Cathe:

Abdominal Exercises: Are You Doing Too Many Reps?

That Stubborn Abdominal Pooch! Surprising Reasons Your Abs Aren’t Flat

5 Ways to Get More Benefits from Abdominal Training

Are You Taking a Balanced Approach to Abdominal Training?

Are Planks Better Than Crunches for Abdominal Development?


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