When starting workouts for ab, it is expected your abs will be sore as they tone and build strength. But more often than not, it’s your lower back that begins to ache. While this seems counterintuitive, there is a reasonable explanation regarding the difference between your abs and your core.
Many people use these terms interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. In fact, your abs are just one small group of muscles included among the several that make up your core. While the abs are part of the outer core, along with the lats, the glute complex, the quadratus lumborum, the hip flexors and the spinal erectors, they are not the first muscles to engage during exercise or deep breathing. In fact, the first muscles to contract are the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, the deep cervical flexors, the transverse abdominus and the multifidi, which make up the inner core.
It’s the entirety of your core that stabilizes and supports your spine. When you focus on ab workouts that only target this one small group of muscles, the spine is not adequately supported and can easily become injured.
Additionally, when ab muscles are weak, certain exercises will trigger the body to rely on the surrounding muscle groups for support. As your abs become stronger, this will happen less often, and your back pain should be much less, if not entirely eliminated.
In the meantime, however, we recommend you consider performing the following ab exercises that simultaneously strengthen your abs and protect your back.
1 – Plank and Reach
How to Do It: Assume the planking position by planting your hands directly under your shoulders so they are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, as if you’re about to do a push-up. Make sure to keep your back as straight as possible. Ground your toes into the floor and squeeze your glutes. Engage your legs, but don’t lock or hyperextend your knees. Focus on a spot on the floor that is about a foot from your hands. Your head should be in line with your back. Hold this position for five seconds. Now extend your right arm out straight in front of you, keeping your abs tight. Hold this position for 10 seconds. Repeat on the left side. Alternate sides until fatigued. Once you’ve mastered this, try a plank with arm and leg reach challenge.
2 – Exercise Ball Plank Rotations
How to Do It: This exercise is similar to the previous one in that it involves the planking position. However, instead of all limbs set on the floor or mat, you will place your arms, bent at the elbow on your exercise ball. Once you are steady, begin a slow rotation of your arms in a clockwise direction. Your arms should stay on the ball, and your abs should be tight. Now repeat going counterclockwise. Alternate directions until fatigued.
3 – Side Plank
How to Do It: A side plank is just like a regular plank, except that it is done sideways and with one arm at a time. Assume the planking position. Carefully turn your body to one side by lifting an arm and placing all your weight on the other. Hold this position for 10 seconds. Repeat on the opposite side. Alternate sides until fatigued.
3 – Reverse Crunch
How to Do It: To do a reverse crunch, lie flat on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Lay your hands at your sides in a relaxed manner. Flexing your ab muscles, lift your feet and hips off the ground, but keep your lower back on the ground. Repeat until fatigued.
5 – McGill Curl Up
How to Do It: To do a McGill Curl Up, lie flat on your back with one leg extended flat against the floor and one leg bent so your knee is pointed to the ceiling. Now place both hands under your lower back, just above your buttocks. Lift your shoulders approximately six inches off the ground. Hold this position for three breaths and then release. Repeat until fatigued.
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6 – Bird Dog
How to Do It: In bird dog, you will get down on all fours, keeping your back straight. Flexing your abs, extend your right arm straight in front of you and your left leg straight behind you. Hold this position for five seconds and then bring both limbs back to their original position. Repeat on the left side. Alternate sides until fatigued.
7 – Seated Leg Lift
How to Do It: To do a seated leg lift, sit down on the floor with your legs stretched out straight in front of you. Make sure you are seated with your back straight and tall. With your ab muscles pulled in tightly, alternate lifting your legs four to six inches off the ground and hold them there for 10 seconds. Repeat until fatigued.
8 – Knee Tap Plank
How to Do It: A knee tap plank is a progression from a plank. Assume the typical planking position. Now bend one knee and tap the floor. Keep your abs tight while you alternate knees. Repeat until fatigued.
9 – Raised Leg Crunches
How to Do It: To do a raised leg crunch, lie flat on your back with your arms and hands placed comfortably at your sides. Now lift your legs with your knees bent. Lift your shoulders four to six inches from the ground and then lay your legs back down again. Repeat until fatigued.
10 – Standing Leg Lift
How to Do It: In a standing leg lift, you’ll place your feet shoulder-width apart. Confirm that your back is tall and straight and your abs are flexed. Point your toes, and lift the leg approximately a foot above the ground and hold it for five seconds. Repeat on opposite side. Alternate sides until fatigued.
Strengthening your core is as important, if not more important, as strengthening your abs. Choosing to ignore your core can lead to back pain, or worse, serious back injury. Be sure to check out the videos to make sure you’re performing the exercises correctly to reduce the risk of injury. If you have any trouble accessing the content, try a virtual private network to see the videos and learn proper form.
As with any exercise program, be careful and discerning and select exercises that focus on both your abs and your core. Strengthening your core is perhaps the most important step you can take to protect your back from injury.
If you have a back injury, it’s critical your physician signs off on any ab exercises you choose to employ. Collaboration with your doctor will assist you as you work to protect and reinvigorate your back while strengthening your abs.