Why Your Back Hurts When You Do Abs

Working to strengthen your core should not compromise your low back health.

Throughout my seven years on the gym floor, the most common complaint I hear is lower back pain during abdominal exercises. The most common culprits are the plank and the leg raise.

As frustrating as this pain can be, the plank and the leg raise both have great value. The plank is a fantastic exercise for working the anti-extension properties of the abdominals. This simply means that the plank challenges the abdominals ability to resist against spinal extension.

The leg raise challenges the lower abdominals. This is an important task, as the lower abdominals are the weakest area of the abdominal wall. If you consider the range of movement that you perform daily, you will find that it is quite rare to lift your knee to the height of your navel. This leads to the lower abdominals being heavily underused.

The Role of the Abdominal Wall

To understand back pain during abdominal exercises, we must first understand the role of the abdominals. As mentioned earlier, the abdominals are crucial for preventing spinal extension. If they are strong enough, the pelvis will be pulled into a proper position, which prevents an anterior pelvic tilt. On some individuals, an anterior pelvic tilt can be highly visible during day-to-day movement, and is better known as a “duck butt.”

If someone is unable to assume great alignment on a regular basis, how on earth can we expect them to challenge their abdominals with the plank, and not feel tremendous tension on their lumbar spine?

Sometimes, people don’t tilt their pelvis forward. However, if their abdominals are weak, their spinal alignment will still find another way to compensate. This often results in an over-emphasised arc in the lumbar spine, and a hunched-over position in their thoracic spine.

So we see that the plank challenges these anti-extension properties, and the leg raise challenges the abdominals’ ability to hold good pelvic alignment. But why is it that these specific exercises cause such aggravation?

Where the Abs Let the Back Down

The Exercise Is Too Tough

It’s sometimes that simple, even if it hurts someone’s pride. It’s common to feel tension in your lower back, but if you perform an exercise with the correct technique and still feel aggravation, there is a chance that you may have progressed too quickly. You may be holding the plank for too long, or you need to perform fewer repetitions of leg raises. When it comes to leg raises, you may even need to alter the technique to suit your capability. Often, people need to assume a slight bend in their knees to depressurize the lower back.

Low Mobility

This is a phenomenon that I like to call the lower back sandwich. Tightness around the thoracic spine or the hips can heavily hinder the lower back. For example; if the biceps femoris of the hamstrings are short, the participant will struggle to perform a leg raise without excessive movement of the lumbar spine. Low thoracic spine mobility is also harmful, as the lumbar spine may assume an over-emphasized arc to make up for the poor positioning of the upper back.

A Poorly Structured Lifting Regime

In a world of online trainers, highly qualified gym staff, and unlimited resources, poor workout regimes should be a thing of the past. However, I still witness gym-goers neglecting the most crucial lifts. Improving your primal movement patterns such as your squats, your hinging actions (deadlifts and hip thrusts), and loaded carries should the foundation of any lifting program. This ensures correct muscular balance. If your alignment is out, back pain is inevitable.

How to Stop Being in Pain

If you initiate any fitness program, you must do so with permission of a physician. With a clean history regarding back injury, you may proceed.

The first step is to differentiate between pain and tension. If the lower back feels a sharp, shooting pain, stop the exercises at once. You may have caused an injury. If you haven’t you’re about to! Often, a dull ache occurs in the musculature surrounding the lumbar spine. This is perfectly acceptable. However, you do not want this ache to be too substantial. Especially when you don’t feel the challenge of the exercise on your abdominals.

The next stage is to break into the two exercises in question and modify them to your capabilities.

The Plank

Consider your technique. If you perform the plank with a deep arc in your lower back, there’s your problem! The best way to find out if this is the case is to have a partner take a photo of your plank from the side.

If you assume the correct position, the easiest step is to limit the time that you are practicing the exercise. If you can manage a plank for 30 seconds without back pain, you are at a good starting point. Practice 3 sets of 30 seconds, twice each week for 4 weeks before progressing.

Sometimes, people still feel pain during this exercise. If that is the case for you, practice the plank with your arms on a higher platform such as a bench. You will eventually progress to practicing the plank on the floor again, but first ensure that your technique is sound and that you don’t suffer with back pain.

As months go by, you will find that you can perform the plank with your arms on the ground for an extended period, such as a full minute. I don’t believe in practicing the plank for over a minute. To continue strengthen the abdominals, add instability. This can be done by practicing your plank on a gym ball, but one of my favorite advancements is the plank with a reach. This simply involves practicing the plank while stretching an arm out in front of you.

The Leg Raise

If leg raises cause your lower back to hurt, lower the repetition range. Three sets of six repetitions is where most of my beginners start.

You may also opt for a modified version that I call an eccentric leg raise. This involves keeping the shoulder blades off the ground to ensure lumbar spine stability. Keep the knees bent on the way up, but straighten the legs on the way down.

I have found that my clients feel more of a challenge on their abdominals during this drill. When they keep their legs straight throughout the exercise, it is not uncommon for their thighs to burn before their abs.

The next stage is to practice this eccentric leg raise, but with the shoulder blades and the back of your head against the ground. This further challenges the abdominals to keep the lumbar spine in correct alignment.

There’s No Prize for Rushing

Take your time developing your abdominals, and never resort to high repetitions of back-busting exercises such as sit ups or crunches.

You don’t have to hurt all the time:

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