In most cases, strengthening is pretty easy. Find a weight, lift it up and down several times, and move onto the next exercise. But abdominal strengthening has continued to vex people, leading them to persist with the same standby exercises: sit-ups and crunches.
However, studies show that these exercises can lead to back pain and most people don’t even use their abs for sit-ups! Full sit-ups involve heavy use of the hip flexors; while it’s important to strengthen this muscle group too, this exercise isn’t accomplishing the desired goal.
So, skip the sit-ups! Here are a few exercises that are both easier on your back and harder on your abs, giving you more bang for your buck while helping you avoid low back pain.
Exercise 1: Planks
These may look easy, but planks are a challenging full body exercise that force you to activate your entire core. Prop up either onto your elbows (low plank) or hands (high plank), maintain a rigid core and hold! The amount of time is up to you but you should stop when your abdomen starts to drop toward the floor; this is a sign of fatigue. If possible, perform this exercise alongside a mirror at first so you can gauge proper hip and pelvis position.
Exercise 2: Side planks
When working on abdominal strengthening, most people neglect their obliques, or the muscles along either side of your abdomen. One good way to strengthen them is with side planks! Start by lying on your side, then prop onto your elbow or hand and lift your hips off the ground. Again, the hold time is up to you but you should stop when your abdomen starts to droop. Make sure you stay nice and level too! Most people tend to lean too far forward. Performing this exercise in front of a mirror at first is a good way to learn proper side plank position.
Exercise 3: Bird dog
Patients who have seen a physical therapist for low back pain before might be familiar with this one. Bird dogs are a great exercise for many muscle groups, including your lower back and core. Start in a kneeling position with your hands on the ground (or a mat). Extend one arm and the opposite leg while contracting your abdomen to maintain a level core. Slowly lower both extremities to the floor and repeat with the other side. Ideally, the extended arm and leg will be completely horizontal but the most important part of this exercise is keeping your trunk nice and stable.
Exercise 4: Bridges
Bridges are another old standby exercise for hip and core strengthening. Start on your back with your knees bent. Squeeze your glutes and your abdomen and lift your hips off the ground. Push all the way up until your abdomen is completely level, hold for a second or two and lower back to the ground. Longer holds are OK too but could put unwanted stress on your lower back if you don’t maintain a tight core. For an additional challenge, try flexing one hip and performing the exercise on just one leg!