Sometimes, ab exercises can feel like a no-win proposition — you have back pain because you don't have core strength, but training those muscles makes your back hurt. To solve this problem, look for moves that train your entire core — the muscles that surround and stabilize your spine, including your abs — that won't put undue stress on your back.
Are Crunches Good or Bad for Your Back?
When it comes to ab exercises, your first thought might be to lie on your back and start crunching. For most people, this exercise is mild, suitable and effective. But if your back isn't entirely healthy, the repetitive action of flexing the lumbar spine might cause problems; it's best to speak with your doctor about the ins and outs of your particular back condition to be sure.
If you have a back injury, talk to your health care provider before undertaking a comprehensive core workout plan. And if you’re just embarking on a core strength routine, start with basic exercises before you switch to more advanced moves.
How about sit-ups? Although this exercise is often conflated with crunches they're quite different, and hinge-at-the-hip sit-ups work your hip flexors, which are muscles that run from your thighs to your lower back. If you have tight or overly strong flexors, it can pull on the lower spine and cause low back pain.
The Best Ab Exercises That Don't Strain Your Back
But even if your back is healthy enough for crunches and sit-ups, you might still want to skip them. Why? They're not a very functional or effective exercise, and more often than not, they're done incorrectly, putting undue strain on your neck. Try one of the four exercises below — ranked from beginner to more advanced — instead.
Read more: Why Crunches Won't Give You Flat Abs
1. Leg Slide
Because this exercise has you maintaining a neutral spine throughout, it's less likely to cause back pain.
- Lie on your back, place your hands on your hip bones and move your spine into a neutral position. Your feet should be flat on the ground with knees bent.
- Engage your ab muscles, exhale and extend your right leg, sliding your heel along the ground as you do.
- Return to the starting position and repeat on the left side.
- Complete six to eight reps on each leg.
To increase the difficulty of this move, lift the non-sliding leg so the foot is raised and the knee is bent to a 90-degree angle.
While slightly awkward at first, the bird-dog exercise promotes lower back strength and helps work on balance.
- Get on all fours, with your hands and knees on the ground.
- At the same time, raise your left arm forward and your right leg straight back. Keep your right hand and left knee on the ground to support your body.
- Return your arm and leg to the floor.
- Raise your right arm forward and left leg straight back.
- Repeat on both sides for six to eight reps.
3. Modified Plank
The plank pose is an ideal abdominal exercise because, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), it requires minimal movement while engaging all layers of the abdominal fascia.
- Lie face-down.
- Raise your body so you're supporting yourself on your forearms and knees.
- Position your elbows directly under your shoulders.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, or as long as you can without compromising your form.
Keep your forearms parallel to each other. Joining your hands together during a plank can create instability in your shoulder joint, according to ACE.
4. Plank With Rotation
Once you've mastered the modified plank, push yourself to a full plank, which requires balancing on your toes instead of your knees. When that also becomes too easy, add a thoracic rotation for extra strength-building benefits.
- Lift up to a high plank by balancing on your hands and toes, hands directly under your shoulders.
- Press your right hand into the ground, rotate your feet and hips to the left, then raise your left arm toward to the ceiling.
- Rotate your left arm back down.
- Press your left hand into the ground and repeat on the other side.
- Do three to six reps on each side.
Read more: 11 Plank Variations for Rock-Solid Abs