If your back hurts when doing specific core exercises, have no fear, you are not an anomaly.
This happens to a lot of people who are doing the movements they think they should be doing, but possibly doing them incorrectly.
A strong core doesn’t have to come from fancy crunches and crazy upside down exercises.
It actually comes from the basics, and knowing how to properly engage the deep abdominal muscles.
So while you may think you need more sit ups, planks and leg raises; what you might need is to scale back and start at the foundation first, before moving onto something more challenging.
Let’s figure out why your back hurts when doing ab workouts and how specific exercises could be exasperating the problem.
The core, or abdominals, actually have several layers. One, we need to protect out inner organs, but two because our truck moves in several different directions. So, we need muscles to help us stay strong in multiple different positions and angles.
The core is technically made up of your abdominals (abs) and your low back/truck muscles.
So think of your core as being everything between your nipple line and your hips (front and back).
So while we need to have strong abs for various reasons, we also need to have strong lower back/trunk muscles.
The abdominal muscles are made up of your transverse abdominis, inner obliques, outer obliques and retus abdominis.
And in order to make sure we are strengthening them all, we need to be doing core exercises that work them all. But before that, we need to focus on proper breathing mechanics.
The pressure within the abdominal cavity is known as your intra abdominal pressure or (IAP).
In order to keep this controlled, we have to know how to properly engage our core muscles.
So – this is not bearing down and holding our breath. This is engaging through the pelvic floor, and pulling the core in (like a zipper) as the air leaves the abdominal cavity.
If you take a breath and go to sit up, and a bulge or turtle belly occurs, then you are not properly engaging. There is a great blog on how to breath and engage your core during ab workouts here.
We also have to note that if you are not regulating IAP, you are likely not engaging the deep abdominal muscles (transverse abdominals).
So if we don’t have those engaged, we are pushing the air against them in our belly weakening them, instead of strengthening them.
This is when we need to scale back our exercises and focus on breathing correctly and engaging those deep muscles properly before doing any advanced movements.
The core is more complex than sit ups and crunches, so make sure you slow things down. Now, let’s dive into exactly why certain exercises might be painful for you.
Typically, back pain can be chalked up to either poor posture, too much sitting or a weak core. Or really, any combination of them.
So when you think about a crunch, you have to think about the position the exercise puts you in.
Curved back, knees up (or bent) and head to the ceiling (or more typically, neck bent towards chest).
This position is something we spend a lot of time in, just rotated, right?
When we sit at a computer we have a curved back, bent knees and a rounded neck.
This means crunches is going to continue to make this position more common for your body and start to cause more pain.
Our society spends a lot fo time sitting in chairs working on computers. Aka, we have poor posture, and spend a lot of time in flexion (seated, shoulders rounded).
This means we want to spent our exercising and moving in extension or other planes of motion.
Crunching exercises are going to…
1. Push your spine into the floor which can already be painful.
2. Work the hip flexors because they are in a shorted position.
When sitting in a chair, or whenever our knees are bent, our hip flexors are in a shorted position.
So if during a crunch we also have them shortened, we are going to end up firing those muscles to help during crunches.
This can then lead to tighter hip flexors, that then pull on the lower back causing pain. The last thing we want is shorter/tighter hip flexors, we want to avoid that at all costs.
So hip flexor tightness and poor positioning could be the reason for your back pain during crunches.
Planks are a pretty standard exercise when it comes to doing core work. It works the abs, the trunk muscles as well as the glutes/legs. Really, it just works everything. But – you have to make sure you are doing them correctly.
If planks are done wrong, yes they can be bad for your back. But more-so, if you don’t have the correct form, you really aren’t benefitting your core at all. Which defeats the purpose of doing them, usually.
Proper plank form is:
• Elbows and toes (like, tippy toes) – or knees for a modification.
• Shoulders stacked over the elbows.
• Back flat – pushing up through the shoulder blades
• Core engaged – meaning hips are rolled under to create tension in the abdominal muscles (think about tilting the pelvis under, tilting towards your ribs). This is what will fire the abdominals. You also want to make sure your core is flat – there should be no coning or bulging. If there is, you need to tighten the transverse absominis, and pull the belly button in (or drop to your knees).
• Legs Spread – if you find you have tight hip flexors, it may be beneficial to have a wider base for your plank. If you spread your legs apart and tuck the hips under, it will usually turn “off” the hip flexors and turn “on” the core muscles.
Planks are not an easy exercise when you think about all of the moving parts. If you do it wrong (like not tucking the pelvis or arching the back) you certainly can cause damage to the back..making planks useless.
We now need to learn how to properly workout our core, without hurting our backs, yeah? Okay, great.
Like I said earlier, the key here is making sure you are properly engaging your core, and if not, decreasing intensity to slower paced exercises until you build up that strength is going to be ideal.
Ab exercises and workouts don’t need to be fancy – you don’t have to add weights or jumps or twists. You can focus on slow contractions, and proper engagement.
Optional core exercises to get you started…
• Bear Crawl Hold
• Pelvic tilts
• Quadruped reaches
• Abdominal marches
If you are looking for videos and picture demonstrations of ab workouts for back pain, this is a great blog post.
The key here is avoiding movements that are going to put your back into flexion (rounded forward) and work on things that are stabilizing the core as a whole. The exercises above might not be fancy, but they are the basics that get the job done.
I wish there was a specific answer I could give you here that would make all your worries go away, but there isn’t.
The body is so intricate, and everyone is so different. BUT – there may be a few reasons you are having some sort of back pain after you do ab workouts.
First one being, you aren’t actually engaging your core properly when you are doing your ab workouts.
Abs is more than just feeling a “burn” when you do the exercise. You have to make sure your breathing and your control are in check as well.
This means slowing down, thinking about when you breath in/out during the exercise, and making sure the muscle you are intended to work IS ACTUALLY DOING THE WORK.
Secondly, pain in an area that you weren’t intending to exercise is an indicator that your body is trying to compensate.
For example – if we are doing squats but our low back starts to hurt, that likely means that our form is compromised under the load because the body isn’t strong enough to squat it correctly.
The same goes for core exercises – if our core isn’t strong enough to do the exercise properly (or we just don’t really know how to do it right) our body is going to compensate and other muscles are going to kick in to help get the work done.
So this means, again, that we need to slow down our core exercises and ensure we are doing them correctly.
When you do a Russian twist – make sure you sit up with a flat back and don’t hunch over for the sake of holding a 20lb weight.
When you do a sit up – focus on your chest coming up first rather than rounding the upper back and reaching forward with the arms.
When you do an overhead weight hold – don’t arch your back, make sure you are squeezing the glutes and pulling the shoulders back so you are fully stacked.
Reminding yourself of these small tweaks in form can be the difference between your back muscles taking over to help, and your core actually getting stronger by doing it correctly.
Until you have created a solid foundations, can control your intra abdominal pressure, and activate your transverse abdominis then you shouldn’t be trying to do any exercises that are advanced.
Things like leg lifts, sit ups, hanging knee tucks etc are going to be a lot more challenging, and require a specific skill set.
The best way to avoid back pain is starting with simple exercises and working your way up to harder ones.
You can also avoid back pain by warming up before workouts, and stretching after workouts.
I know those parts are tedious, and when we are in a time crunch they are the first to go – but they really are so important when it comes to taking care of our bodies a a whole.
You don’t need to be changing things up exercises regularly, stick with the basics and progress them to harder variations as you are able.
Also, if you can, check your posture during the day. The way you sit and stand can play a huge role in back pain, as well as core strength. Stand up often from your desk/chair and move around!
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