The Best Exercises for the Lower Abs With a Herniated Disk

Frustrated young man holding hand on his back and expressing negativity while leaning at the cardboard box
Herniated disks are a real pain in the back. (Image: g-stockstudio/iStock/Getty Images)

It’s not uncommon to have back pain due to a “herniated” lumbar disk — or a disk that is “slipped,” “prolapsed” or “ruptured.” The problem can be extremely painful, causing sciatica, tingling and numbness in the legs and throbbing in the lower back. However, it’s also not unusual for the problem to cause no symptoms.

Spinal disks are the soft, rubbery cushions that provide padding between the vertebrae. Their construction is sometimes compared to a jelly donut: a tough exterior encases a softer filling. A disk herniates or ruptures when casing breaks and the filling pushes through the outer wall, pressing on the oh-so-sensitive spinal nerves.

While a herniated lumbar disk may well be the source of your back pain, that call has to be made by a doctor. Sometimes surgery is necessary, but many are able to avoid or reduce symptoms with exercise and strengthening the right muscles. Strengthening the lower portion of the abs is an important part of lower back health, but it's not the whole equation.

If you have a herniated disc, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about a complete regimen of stretching and core strengthening exercises.

Research-Supported Exercise

A study published in the June 2015 International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine of 63 young male patients with herniated disks found that those who engaged in a 12-week regimen of lumbar spine stabilization exercises (LSSE) reported significantly greater reductions in pain than those who just did general exercise. The LSSE group did curl-ups, pelvic bridge, side bridge alternate arm/leg raises and prone plank.

Good for the Abs and the Spine

man doing an abdominal exercise
If this is too much, lower your head and concentrate on your abs. (Image: Travis McCoy/LIVESTRONG.COM)

1. Abdominal Draw-In

The abdominal draw-in engages not just the rectus abdominis, but the internal and external obliques and the transverse abdominis, the deepest of the abdominal muscles. The draw-in, which is specifically recommended for lower back pain, can be done standing or lying prone, but is more effective done while standing.

It's performed by slowly drawing in the lower abdomen, and then drawing up the pelvic floor muscle so that it contracts together with their lower abdomen. Breathe normally while doing the exercise. The draw-in, sometimes called the vacuum, involves contraction of the transverse abdominis, which in turn flattens the lower abs.

man doing a reverse curl
Make sure you support yourself with your hands on the floor. (Image: Travis McCoy/LIVESTRONG.COM)

2. Reverse Curl

While curls are an excellent abdominal exercise for lower back problems in general, they work the upper rectus abdominis more than its lower portion. Reverse curls, however, provide a high level of lower ab engagement.

To do a reverse curl, lie on your back with your arms crossed over your chest. Flex your hips to 45 degrees and your knees to 90 degrees. Raise the lower half of your body, including buttocks if you can, off floor as far as possible. Return them to the mat to complete one repetition.

man doing a plank
Planks are perfect for entire your entire core. (Image: Travis McCoy/LIVESTRONG.COM)

3. Plank

Plank may be the best exercise for toning your tummy and taking care of your back at the same time. Plank brings all of the abdominal muscles into play, and allows you to put extra emphasis on the lower abs if you're so inclined. Plank is basically the position you’re in when you’re at the top of a push-up.

Hold it as long as possible, drawing in your stomach and compressing your lower abs. One of the advantages of plank is that it involves little movement while requiring you to contract all layers of your abdominal muscles. When done properly, it engages the deep abdominal muscles, as well as the hip, shoulder and upper-back muscles.

man doing a bird dog exercise
This basic exercise strengthens your entire core. (Image: Travis McCoy/LIVESTRONG.COM)

4. Bird Dog

For bird dog, you start on all fours and extend the left leg behind you while extending the right arm in front with your thumb up. Compress your abdominal muscles and hold for 10 to 20 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side. Bird dog stabilizes the lumbar spine, strengthens the core and tones the hip muscles.

Ab Exercises to Avoid

Sit-ups — They place high compressive force on spinal discs and pressure on the neck that can sprain cervical ligaments and damage discs.

Double Leg Lifts — They hyperextend the lower back by straining your hip flexors. Single leg lifts performed with the opposite knee flexed are recommended as a substitute.

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