If you’ve ever tried to do a core workout and realized midway through that your back is feeling things it shouldn’t be feeling, you’re not alone. For me, it’s any abs move that asks me to sit up on my tailbone and move my legs, like rolling up and out of Boat pose in yoga. After a couple of reps, my back always hurts and I don’t even feel any of that burning goodness in my abs.
What gives? Am I doing it wrong? Is my lower back just too weak? Should I be modifying the movement, or should I just stop? A strong core is important for supporting your whole body. From sitting upright in a chair, to simply standing, to running and lifting weights, we need the muscles in our core to stabilize our bodies throughout everything we do. Yet for some people, doing basic bodyweight abs exercises can cause lower-back pain or discomfort.
For obvious reasons, it’s kind of tough to stick with any sort of ab-strengthening regimen if you just end up in pain. So I talked with some fitness experts to understand why this common problem happens, and what some of the potential solutions are.
To understand why this happens, you first have to remember that the abs and the lower back are both part of our core.
Your core is made up of a group of muscles that work together to support and stabilize the trunk of your body. While we often think of our core as our abs, the abs are only one part of the equation. The core wraps around the entire body, and includes muscles like the rectus abdominus (the abs), obliques, and yes, the muscles in your lower back.
When you try to target any part of your core, you’re inevitably impacting the other parts, too. You can’t do a sit-up without engaging both your abs and your back, right? This also means that if your abs are stronger than your lower back, you may end up putting too much strain on the latter with an exercise that feels good for the former.
“Your core is your glutes all the way to the insertion of your lat muscles; if you’re someone that’s only planking or only crunching, you’re doing yourself a disservice,” Kira Stokes, a NASM-certified personal trainer and creator of the Stoked Method, tells SELF. “As much as you’re working your transverse abdominus, you have to work your obliques, rectus abdominus, and lower back.” Overworking one part of the core and underworking another is a recipe for asymmetry, overcompensation, and muscle strains and pains.
Lower-back pain during any core exercise is typically a sign that your core is too weak to do the exercise.
If your lower back specifically isn’t strong enough, the core work you’re doing may just be asking too much of it, causing your muscles to strain. Alternatively, if you have a weakness anywhere else in your core, your lower back may overcompensate in some abs exercises and end up taking on more than it can handle.
“When the lower back is overactive during the core exercise, it can cause the back muscles to tense up, which can cause pain,” trainer PJ Stahl, M.A., C.S.C.S., co-owner and head coach at Lock Box Fitness & Performance Center in Los Angeles, tells SELF. He adds that for some people, the back may tighten up enough to potentially cause a back spasm.
Pain can also be a sign that your form is off.
For many abs exercises, a small misstep in form can ask too much of your lower back. “Once you start moving into a position that’s not correct, you’re going to start irritating the spine,” Dan Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., cofounder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy, tells SELF.
Stokes says the most common form mistake she sees during abs exercises is failure to tuck the tailbone, which results in the back being hyperextended. “If you can nail the tucking of the tailbone, drawing your navel toward your spine, it’s going to really help alleviate low-back pain,” she says. Another helpful cue? Keep your lower back grounded. “The lower back needs to be anchored on the ground for the majority of abs work,” Stokes says. When it pops off the floor, you put your back in a vulnerable, hyperextended position.
You may be doing an exercise wrong if you’ve never been properly taught how to do it right, but other times, simply not having enough basic core strength can make it impossible to maintain proper form.
Muscle tightness and fatigue can also lead to poor form and lower-back strain.
If your glutes and hips are really tight, chances are, you’ll feel the strain during daily life and not just mid–abs workout. “This continuous pulling on the lower back can be very uncomfortable and can lead to chronic lower-back pain,” Stahl says. But tightness in your upper back or hip flexors can also limit your range of motion during your workouts and cause strain in your lower back.
Julia Yarwood, YogaSpark Tribeca yoga instructor/studio director and NASM-certified personal trainer, adds that fatigue may play a role here, too. “As your muscles tire, they stop functioning properly, and the body will look for nearby muscle groups to compensate.” Most of the time, the compensation falls to the lower back (and sometimes the hips), she says.
So what can you do? First, stop doing what hurts. Then, avoid movements that cause you pain.
Any pain is a sign you should stop what you’re doing and reassess. “You want to stay in a pain-free zone no matter what,” Giordano says. “If you’re leaving that zone, then you’re doing something that’s causing pain, regardless of whether you have actual lower back issues or not.”
Bottom line: “If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it,” Stokes says.
These are the types of core exercises that most commonly cause lower-back pain, and what you can do to modify them:
Exercises that cause hyperextension of the spine
Examples: Low leg lifts, leg tosses, GHD sit-ups
These exercises are usually ones where you’re lying flat on your back and tasked with moving your legs while keeping your lower back down. Tucking the tailbone and keeping your back flat are crucial here.
For some people, basic anatomy makes that tucking position much harder. “We all have that little curve of our spine in the lumbar spine [aka the lower back],” Stokes says. Some people have a bigger natural curve than others, making “gluing your lower back to the mat” incredibly difficult. “Everyone’s spine is a little different. You could be strong as hell, but if you have a massive arch, tucking your tailbone can be tough.”
Exercises that cause hyperflexion of the spine
Example: Sit-ups, hanging leg lifts
For some people, the action of bending forward can cause them to use their hip muscles more, “and it actually could be causing pressure on the spine as you sit all the way up,” Giordano says. He suggests avoiding full-range sit-ups and instead doing basic crunches. “Crunches done correctly are basically 1 inch up 1 inch down.” While crunches sometimes get a bad rap, Giordano and Stokes both say that done right, crunches are a totally fine and useful exercise to include in your overall routine.
Stokes suggests putting a ball in between your thighs when you do sit-ups or crunches to elp relieve your lower back. “It forces you to stabilize your pelvis more. When you’re pressing in with your inner thighs, you’re engaging and feeling the lower part of your abdomen, and you’re able to keep the tuck.” She also says to think of rolling up one vertebrae at a time, focusing on using your abs muscles, and taking your time.
Exercises that twist the spine
Examples: Bicycle crunches, Russian twists
“When you twist past the hip, it can cause torsion on the spine and irritation,” Giordano says. Yarwood adds that twisting, especially when done quickly, can be “especially aggravating to those with pre-existing lower-back issues, especially when done with improper form. But being able to rotate your spine is an important for maintaining flexibility and being able to move your body in all of its planes of motion, Stokes says. “You can’t completely leave out rotation because you would have horrible flexibility.” What she suggests—and does herself—is to try rotational movements really slowly. Giordano adds that shortening the range of motion and making the movements very small and controlled will help, too. “Concentrate on not moving your hips or swaying side to side,” he says. As you build core and lower back strength, you may be able to eventually increase your range of motion.
There are some great ways to strengthen your core without straining your lower back.
“The number-one thing people should do is make sure have they that base core strength,” Stokes says. By performing exercises that target your entire core, you can strengthen everything, including the lower back and the abs. “The biggest thing is remembering it’s your core, not just your abs.”
There are some great ways to strengthen your core without putting unnecessary pressure on your lower back. Stokes suggests: bird dog, dead bug, glute bridges, and planks (as long as you do them properly with your pelvis tucked and core and glutes engaged!).
Rotational stability exercises are great, too, says Stahl (bird dog is one). “These exercises engage the core to fight resistance. They strengthen your body’s ability to resist external forces that can cause injury. Doing these exercises will strengthen your back and entire core along with decreasing overall injury potential,” he says. Examples of rotational stability exercises include: forearm plank with alternating leg raises, extended arm plank with alternating arm raises, and a side forearm plank with leg raise.
To get familiar with the feeling of planting your lower back on the ground, Yarwood suggests this simple drill: “Lie on your back with your legs in the air, squeezing a block between your legs. Try to flatten your low back to the ground. Slowly start to lower your legs, squeezing around the block (a slight bend of the knees is fine). Just before you feel your low back try to lift off of the ground, squeeze the block, reengage the low back toward the ground underneath you, and take three deep breaths. Then slowly raise your legs back up to the starting position.”
And last but not least, there are so many non-abs-specific exercises that can give you a “sneaky” core workout—adding them to your routine will help you gain core strength without ever having to do a crunch or twist, so you can work on that base strength while hitting other big muscle groups at the same time. Multitasking is a beautiful thing.