Want a flat stomach? These core exercises won’t hurt your back

A pilates instructor reveals the best techniques.

Photo: Getty/ Stock

If you’ve ever tried to do abdominal exercises but then stop because you feel like they’re hurting your back, you’re not alone. Lots of people feel discomfort as they engage in ab-tightening exercises – mostly because they work the lower back.

Sound familiar? Before you give up, consider that:

1. You may not be getting your deep muscles activating and the larger muscles keep taking over during these exercises.

2. You have poor form when you are doing your abdominal and other strength exercises, where mis-alignment might be happening throughout your body.

3. You have muscular imbalances where certain muscles are over-developed or the spine is out of alignment. So when load is added in the form of abdominal work, the deep muscles are not strong enough, and thus cause ‘pain’ or discomfort in your back.

It’s important to plan out your abdominal training so you are strengthening your deep, stabilising muscles, as well the outer, more superficial muscles of the body. This is a great way to alleviate back pain while doing your ab work as there will be more of a balance between all muscle groups during the movements.

When you are doing your ‘core’ exercises focus on controlling and slowing down your movements so your body can activate the correct muscles from the ‘inside-out.’ This is more effective than rushing through the movements and using the over-developed muscles. By slowing things down and really connecting those deeper muscles, you will improve your body awareness, as well as your muscular strength.

It is one thing to be able to rush through hundreds of situps, but ask yourself, what is the purpose of doing so, if not done correctly?

If it is just to hit a certain number, it will likely be to the detriment of your muscles and back. Each time you do a traditional ‘sit up,’ you are putting pressure on the discs of the spine which can eventually cause some people pain – and besides, there are other ways to train these muscles.

Here’s three great exercises that won’t hurt your back, and will also help strengthen and sculpt your core:

1. Bug legs

Lay on your back.

Take a breath in and out, drawing belly to spine without crushing lower back to floor (keep it so there is a small, natural curve between it and the floor).

Bring your hands onto the tummy and slowly lift one leg at a time to a ninety degree angle at the knee and hip without your belly popping out. It should feel like a belt is wrapping around your waist.

You will feel if your hands pushed into your belly or not. A successful deep engagement of the core will not change the pressure into the hands.

Ensure the abs are kept tight as you lift your arms upwards, then as you breathe in, extend opposite arm and leg away from each other without tummy popping or hips moving. Exhale and return. Repeat slowly 12 times, keeping your ribs and shoulder blades anchored to floor, chin slightly towards chest.

2. Chest Lift

Lay down on your back and place your hands one on top of the other behind your head for support.

Move your legs out to a ninety degree angle and push them together so that you activate inner thighs, too.

Keep your small lower back space, inhale and bring shoulder blades up off floor, ensuring you do not push lower back down as a leverage point. Instead of ‘crunching’ up, think of lengthening your entire spine as to get taller, rather than just bend into the movement. So the body ‘floats’ off the floor throughout the whole of your upper back.

Hold for 5 -10 seconds while breathing, keeping the belly flat and strong.

3. Side Plank (this will develop strength and sculpt the side of your body)

Lay on your side and bring your elbow under the shoulder so part of your torso is off the ground.

Bend the knees so your knees line up with your hips. Make sure to stay tall in the spine.

Pushing down through the forearm, press your hips upwards and raise other arm straight up. Hold for 10 seconds.

Repeat other side.

It is also important to ensure you are strengthening your back muscles and arms and legs to get total body balance. To get great-looking abdominals takes work from the body as a whole, with a combination of fat-burning aerobic activity, strength work and a balanced diet.

Note: If you have ongoing pain it is important that you consult your physiotherapist or doctor to understand whether your pain is just a muscular imbalance or something else.

fitness | body+soul