The Sad Truth About Abdominal Training and Back Pain

By Yuri Elkaim

One of the most common goals we have is to lose belly fat and get that toned stomach. Unfortunately, the allure of the all-mighty flat stomach has led millions of people down the dangerous path of doing countless sit-ups and ab crunches, which as you’re about to see can do a lot more harm than good!

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What most people don’t realize is that traditional abdominal training, which involves lots of crunches, sit ups, and leg lifts, puts a great deal of stress on the spine. Our anatomy is such that “hip flexion” (bending forward from the waist or raising the legs towards the torso) creates an unforgiving pulling and compressing effect on the vertebrae.

The irony is that any dynamic movement about the hips that provides great rectus abdominus stimulation can also be dangerous for the back. Professor Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, was one of the first to demonstrate this fact.

His work eventually led to the necessity of core/abdominal training whereby a neutral spine is maintained. This means performing exercises where the spine upholds its natural curvature (ie. no bending back and forth).

His work also showed that traditional crunches impose large amounts of strain on the lower back. Furthermore, crunches on the stability ball, which elicit even greater abdominal muscle activation, imparted even more stress on the lower back.

So, the sad reality (I guess) is that any abdominal/core exercise that involves forward bending strains the lower back, and the more activation created in the abdominal muscles, the more the lower back is at risk.

Ok, so with that in mind..

How do you train your core effectively without compromising the health of your spine and low back? And what exercises can you do that actually strengthen your abs, low back, and prevent you from developing back pain?

It’s simple – use stability exercises that ensure a neutral spine while recruiting greater amounts of the deeper abdominal muscles.

Here are 3 highly effective and back-friendly exercises:

1. Side Plank

On your right side, stack your feet and place your right forearm underneath your armpit. Now, using the muscles on the side of your abdominal wall, push your hips up so that your feet and forearm support your body. Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on other side.

2. Prone Stability Ball Roll Out

Position yourself in a push-up position overtop the stability ball with your legs straight, toes on the floor, and hands holding near the sides of the ball. Ensure a neutral spine and tuck your tailbone under. Now, keeping your body completely still, roll the ball forward a few inches, and then back, so that only your arms are moving. Repeat for 10-15 reps.

3. Stability Ball Plank with Feet on Bench

Position your forearms on the ball as if doing a regular plank and raise your feet onto a bench so that your body is parallel to the floor. Ensure that you tuck in your abdominals and keep your spine neutral. No arching of the lower back. Hold for 30-60 seconds.


McGill, S. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Backfitpro Inc, 2006

[Ed. Note: Yuri Elkaim is one of the North America’s leading fitness, nutrition, and conditioning experts. For the best workouts that will strengthen your abs and core without compromising your low back, be sure to check out his “Amazing Abs Solution”.]

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