Your favorite abdominal exercises may be contributing to your back pain

  • Written by JIMMY MCCURRY, CSCS

Everyone knows it’s important to train the core. People have even been told that strengthening the core will help with back pain, which is true, but which exercises are good and which ones are bad? If you are suffering from back pain, I recommend picking up a copy of anything by Dr. Stuart McGill. Dr. McGill is a back pain expert who has revolutionized how we look at the body in terms of back health and longevity.  Dr. McGill states that there is only so much bending the spine can handle in a lifetime, so we need to spend as little time as possible bending with the low back under load. In short, doing endless crunches is not the right kind of core training. There are many exercises that I absolutely abhor and these exercises should not happen in any gym. The list of exercises not to do is too long for this article. Instead of stating all the bad things you can do for your spine in the name of training the “core,” let’s list the top three core exercises to stabilize the relationship between the hips and ribs.

Planking: The plank is a great exercise that will challenge the shoulders as well as the abdominal wall. This exercise actively challenges the the relationship between the hips and ribs. It is important that you do not experience back pain while doing this exercise; back pain means that your pelvis is not neutral and that you need to start from the knees, and focus on “tucking the tail.” The key to this exercise is propping your body up on the forearms and toes, staying as straight as possible. Make sure you pack your chin back (make a double chin), breathe into your belly and drive your heels backward. Give it a try for three sets of one minute. The great thing about the plank is that it challenges the core in a way that mimics standing.

Dead Bugs: This exercise is very effective for those of us that have hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine, also called swayback or, my personal favorite, Donald Duck butt. This exercise looks just like it sounds. Lay on your back with your knees up and feet off the ground. Your low back will be flat and should stay as such through the whole movement. Your arms will be pointed toward the ceiling. Lower your opposite arm and leg toward the ground, putting your arm in an overhead position and fully extending your leg. This exercise is slow. Control the low back position, crushing the floor the entire time.

Single Sided Carries: Have you ever picked up a bucket of water in one hand and walked across the yard? Your core gets a workout, but why not add it to your gym routine? Pick up a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell and walk across the gym with it three times, then switch hands. Try and stay as upright as possible. This challenges rotatory stability as well as those oblique muscles and your grip; how much more functional can you get?!

For an extended version of this article, tutorials on these movements and more content, visit

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