For many of us with bad backs, the idea of an ab workout is laughable. If you ever had your back ache mid-crunch or gotten stuck in the arch position over a stability ball, read on. We asked Julie Erickson, owner of Endurance Pilates & Yoga in Arlington, Mass., and creator of Barre Boston, for some tips to work out the abs without making your back cry. Please talk to your doctor before trying these workouts!
“There are many alternatives to sit-ups and crunches that keep the spine in a more neutral position and work the core and abdominal muscles as stabilizers versus mobilizers,” Erickson said. “This is especially true for the lumbar spine, where most people tend to feel low back pain. For example, those with lower back pain due to a herniated disk will probably be advised by a doctor to work in a neutral lumbar spine versus a flexed position in this area of the spine. Ensure that you are keeping the torso still while other pieces move or gravity challenges. We want to think of all of the muscles of the torso functioning like a giant corset that pulls everything in and supports — Pilates is like Spanx from within your own body!”
Forearm plank: From the hands and knees, stretch both legs back to achieve a plank position with the toes and forearms pressed into the floor. The entire body should be a like a rod of steel from the crown of the head to the heels. Pull the belly in and up without disturbing the position of the rest of the body. The belly should stay pulled in for the entire duration of the exercise. The chest, shoulders and hips should stay in alignment. Three repetitions of one-minute holds. Add 30 seconds to each hold as you progress. Click here for a demonstration.
90 degrees with flex band: Start seated, arms bent at the elbows to 90 degrees. Lift and lengthen through the spine and torso as you hinge from the hip flexors; lengthen through the rectus abdominus to reach as far back as possible without arching the back. Pause at the back of the motion and pull the belly in tighter, focusing on whittling the waist. Keep the length and return the torso and arms straight back to the upright position. The back remains straight throughout the exercise, and the torso gets longer from the tailbone to the crown of the head. Imagine that you are wearing a corset around your waist that gets tighter each time you begin the exercise, so the waist gets smaller and the waistline longer with every repetition. Try 10 repetitions for 10 chances to get even taller and longer!
Even if you didn’t sustain a back injury, sometimes the back can hurt during ab workouts due to tightness and weakness of the muscles — specifically, according to Erikson, the erector spinae muscles, which move the back into extension and the rectus abdominus, which moves the spine into flexion.
“Ideally, these muscles are healthy and flexible, but lifestyle habits — such as extended sitting and driving — coupled with poor posture can lead to postural issues, such as kyphosis and lordosis, which wreak havoc on the muscles that support the spine. This lifestyle also shortens the hip flexors, causing the pelvis to tilt in an anterior tilt. Our tushes stick out, our bellies stick out and the bones of the spine are way out of where they should be. Just to stand up and walk around is a huge deal for our muscles and tendons that weren’t intended to work in this outward range for stability, never mind mobility. And in bodies that aren’t trained to engage the core prior to every movement, this is a recipe for disaster!
“When we try to do “an abs workout,” our muscles go into survival mode. The muscles that are too strong — like the hip flexors — lift the entire torso, straining the back muscles attempting to stabilize, while the rectus should be flexing the spine, but it is too stretched out and weak from our everyday posture to be able to function properly — yikes!”
Swan prep: This exercise utilizes all of the back extensor muscles, which oppose the abdominals and are incredibly weak in many individuals. The back extensors are an extremely neglected group of muscles because of lifestyle, work environment and our tendency to slouch! It is also extremely important for students to engage the deep core muscles engaged throughout swan so that the back muscles are doing just the job of extending the spine and not over-working because of a deficiency of strength in the core. Click here for a demonstration.
Rollbacks: This exercise engages core muscles for stability and the abdominals for mobility on the way down and the way up. From the up-and-over position, the rectus abdominus must work to support the torso as gravity assists the body in moving toward the floor a bone at a time. It is very important that you only move as far back as you feel in control. Click here for a demonstration.