Strengthening exercises shouldn’t cause unnecessary pain. However, some people may experience lower back pain when performing ab workouts, particularly crunches and sit-ups.
So what happens when you get back pain from the very workouts that are supposed to improve your health?
Keep reading on why you may get back pain during ab workouts and what you can do about it.
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The leading cause of lower back pain during ab workouts is poor form. For instance, engaging your back muscles instead of your abdomen can lead to discomfort in the back. Another example is curving the back too much when lifting, which can stress the lower spine.
These are prime examples of why some people may experience lower back pain during ab exercises.
Too much, too soon
Even with the correct form, doing lots of ab exercise too early can lead to lower back pain.
Exercising too intensely or too long can lead to fatigue and strain through the back if you don’t patiently work on strengthening the ab muscles over time.
Warming up or stretching before your workout helps prepare your body by activating your muscles and increasing blood flow.
When muscles haven’t been engaged, they may not be prepared for heavy movements, leading to strain and injury through the lower back.
Being deconditioned is another reason for lower back pain during ab exercises. Regular exercise causes stress and strain through your muscles, and over time, it builds up strength and confidence. Exposing the body to multiple exercises ensures you don’t neglect certain muscles.
The body is like a chain — you are only as strong as your weakest link. Any areas that are not strong enough can cause the lower back to work too hard, or perhaps the back isn’t strong enough to carry the load. Make sure that you are regularly performing a range of exercises.
It can be tempting to skip the pre-workout warm-up when pressed for time. However, easing into the workout with gentle stretches or progressive movements prepares your muscles for the work ahead. It increases blood flow and helps activate your muscles.
Spend about 10–15 minutes on simple exercises like gentle trunk rotations, shoulder rolls, and lunges.
Stop if you experience pain
If your back starts to hurt during a workout, stop immediately and note what triggered your pain. Experiencing pain during an exercise is a clear sign you should rethink your workout plan.
Avoid or change any exercises that could be triggering your pain. Alternatively, you may consider seeking the help of a health professional, such as a strength coach or physical therapist.
Strengthening your core and lower back muscles
Strengthening or training your lower back muscles more often can protect your lower back during abdominal workouts. This is particularly true if you have an inactive work-life and improper posture.
Even simple exercises like brisk walking can cause lower back pain if the muscles are underdeveloped or not working effectively.
Examples of starting exercises you can consider include planks, bridges, dead bugs, and pelvic tilts. These movements allow you to build core strength gradually to protect against lower back pain.
Gradually increasing your workouts
Another effective method for avoiding lower back pain during ab workouts is starting with basic movements before progressing to more challenging ones.
While it may be tempting to try the advanced techniques, not developing your fundamentals increases the risk of developing injuries, like lower back pain.
The core includes the muscles of the front abdominal (e.g., rectus abdominis), deep core (e.g., transverse abdominis), along the side of the body (e.g., obliques, quadratus lumborum), and in the back (e.g., erector spinae, multifidus, etc.).
Supporting the core includes other surrounding muscles, including the diaphragm, gluteal muscles, and hip flexors.
The main role of the core is to provide stability to the spine to protect it against challenging or heavy movements.
What happens if our core muscles are weak during ab workouts?
A key role of the core is to help support and protect the passive structures in our body. Passive structures are areas in the body that don't initiate movements, such as the joints, ligaments, or spinal disks.
Weak core muscles can lead to lower back pain during ab workouts. If your core muscles are not developed enough, they may not be as effective for protecting the spine (e.g., vertebrae, ligaments, disks, etc.) from the stress and strain of ab workouts.
Exercises for core strength
You can build core strength in several ways, including:
Isometric exercises, which keep the core stiff and rigid, such as side planks and farmer’s walks
Dynamic exercises, which focus on strengthening activities as the core moves, such as crunches and Russian twists
Core exercises that you may avoid during lower back pain
While not all these exercises can worsen lower back pain, they are some common movements that can aggravate the back.
Sit-ups require lumbar flexion, which can add pressure to your spine. Partial crunches may allow you to isolate your abdominal muscles without the same risk.
High-impact aerobics, e.g., running, contact sports, trampolining, and snowboarding.
Extreme twisting movements, e.g., golf, tennis, yoga
Superman back extensions
Standing toe touches
If you are experiencing lower back pain during your ab workouts, please consult a physical therapist or strength coach about changing or finding a new workout routine.
They may also help ensure that you perform the exercise correctly. Using the proper technique can reduce the likelihood of lower back pain, discomfort, and other forms of injury.
However, we recommend visiting a doctor if the pain is severe and doesn't seem to disappear. The same is true if lower back pain occurs alongside other symptoms like numbness or tingling down the legs.
Other signs you should see a doctor for lower back pain include:
Difficulty with your bowel or bladder movements
Severe pain that extends down to the legs
Difficulty walking or moving your legs
Loss of sensation in your legs
Fever alongside lower back pain
Loss of strength in arms and legs
Lower back pain during ab workouts shouldn’t be constant. Using the correct form when working out and strengthening your core can help reduce the risk of lower back pain.
It's also crucial that you gradually progress your training and avoid or change the exercises that trigger your pain.
You should seek immediate medical treatment if the pain is severe, doesn’t improve, or occurs alongside concerning symptoms.