Why Does My Back Hurt When Performing Ab Exercises?


Some lessons are just harder to learn than others. Despite all of the advice, scientific literature, and the painful lack of results, people still want to believe that ab exercises in every shape or form will make their stomachs flat, that the mythical concept of spot reduction doesn’t exist, and in the process of seeking the Holy Grail of fitness, potentially put themselves on the sidelines by injuring themselves. I’ve seen it many times where individuals are “killing” themselves working their abs when in reality, all they are doing is a lot of head bobbing and back contortions. Aside from putting warning labels on every abdominal exercise/device (we all know how well warning labels have worked in the real world), the only solution is to have a better understanding of what you’re potentially doing wrong when an exercise causes discomfort or worse, pain. But even if you have never experienced back pain while doing abdominal exercises, I believe you will find this informative.

It’s Not Supposed To Hurt

No exercise is ever meant or designed to hurt. Let me elaborate. No exercise is designed to cause physical harm through improper use and application of a particular exercise. Muscles are supposed to burn and can potentially be sore the next day, but no exercise should ever cause physical pain. It’s an important distinction to make as the basic nature of exercise is to cause physical stress, not distress. If something doesn’t feel right when performing an exercise, it’s your body’s way of alerting you something is not quite right. To continue working through it would be just careless. Learn to listen to your body and know the difference between when to push and when to stop.

The Mechanics Of Abdominal Training

Physical pain is caused by one of three things: blunt trauma (i.e. getting hit, falling, etc.); health issues (i.e. arthritis, circulatory problems, etc.); biomechanical failures (i.e. muscle pulls, tendon rupture, etc.). Most pain associated with a particular exercise can generally be associated to something biomechanical in origin. For example, in the case of abdominal exercises, any pain that is not felt in the abdominals but in other parts of the body (back, hip, neck, etc.) is not as much a result of weak abdominal muscles (although they do need the work), but the potential muscular imbalances between the opposing muscle groups; in this case, the back extensors versus the abdominals. With regards to abdominal training, depending on the muscle you’re attempting to work and isolate (rectus abdominus, obliques, transverse abdominus, etc.), it’s important to understand what the opposing action or muscle groups are to the movement. Let’s look at the basic abdominal crunch where the torso flexes (shoulders move closer to the hips). As the abdominals shorten in the front, the extension (opposing) muscles of the low back lengthen. But it doesn’t end there. Upon returning to the starting position as the abdominals now lengthen in the front, the back extensors then shorten. If there is pain sometimes felt with this exercise, could it be a weakness in the low back extension muscles? Possibly, but not always the case. Why?

The Proverbial Curve

The biggest cause of most, if not all pain associated with performing most abdominal exercise has its root in the biomechanical set up of your body. To put that more simply, how your spine and hips are aligned. Whether we’re talking about basic crunches, abdominal planks, rotations, etc. having an increased lordotic curve will have an impact on how you train and use the abdominal muscles. The lordotic curve (the curve in the small of your back) is dictated by either or both of two things: genetics and mechanics, or how you’ve conditioned it through life. It’s probably nothing you do intentionally except that when you sit it does have a negative effect on the lumbar spine and hips, thus affecting the lordotic curve. A very common cause to all of this is a condition known as anterior pelvic tilt. Imagine your hips as a bowl. With anterior pelvic tilt that bowl is tilted forward pouring out its contents. Anterior pelvic tilt is generally linked to the chronic shortening and subsequent tightening of the hip flexor muscles, much of which is the net effect of sitting. What makes this phenomenon especially uncomfortable for a lot of people and not just those performing abdominal exercises is that this set of muscles has their origin not on the front of the hip, but in the back on the front of the lower spine. Over time, those imbalances: tight hip flexors which pull on the low back; low back muscles that are chronically shortened and weakened as a result; a lengthened abdominal musculature that grows weaker and fatigued – coupled with an excessive lordotic curve and you have a recipe for low back pain when all you wanted to do was work your abs.

The Quick Fix

It’s not often that I say this but there is a quick fix to all of this.

  1. If it hurts, STOP!
  2. If you’re going to train your abs, be sure to train the entire core complex: rectus abdominus, obliques, transvers abdominus, hip flexors, back extensors, and the glutes. That’s right! The glutes are the under rated core muscle group because they control stability of the hips. Weak glutes leads to poor hip stability, possibly lending itself to a low back that grows weaker and weaker.
  3. Be mindful of the time you spend sitting. You can’t expect the body to function optimally through exercise if the other 98% of the time you’re putting it into a losing proposition. Make an effort to get up periodically; move around; stretch out; answer phone calls standing, etc.
  4. Work on getting more range of motion through the hips, not just the legs and arms that are always more popular.
  5. There are literally hundreds of way to work the abdominals. Find the ones that suit you best – not the most popular or trendy. And remember, the primary function of the abdominals is stability so if you predominately train your abs for flexion (i.e. sitting up), you’re setting yourself up for failure at some point.

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.


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