Ab exercise: If your back gets sore before your abs…


If your back gets sore before your abs get tired when you do ab exercises, you probably have a large anterior pelvic tilt. That is, your butt probably sticks out a bit. In some cases, the upside may be that it’ll make your butt look great. Although it doesn’t always look good…

Looks aside, for many people, it may contribute to low back pain, either on a regular basis, or while trying to perform ab exercises. Raise your hand if you or any of your clients have complained that they feel planks in their low back more than in their abs. I hear this complaint often. Many people find it very hard to really work their abs. It can happen with planks and other variations like stir the pot and ab rollouts – especially with rollouts. Crunches have fallen out of favour in the fitness world, but back when they were popular, this was an issue for some people. It certainly was for me.

I have come to realize that a large anterior pelvic tilt can make pushups more challenging as well. It makes sense if you think about it: if the core wants to sag, then the abs are not going to contract as much, which means less stability for your long lever between hands and feet during the pushup and thus more of a challenge.

I have read many articles about this, and have tried many different exercises and approaches to address it. From my perspective, none of them work very well. Here are a few that I have tried with poor results:

  1. a. strengthen your abs
  2. squeeze your glutes during the exercise
  3. “tuck” your pelvis
  4. engage your TVA (transversus abdominus)
  5. reverse crunches

Here’s why I think those recommendations aren’t great:

  1. How? By doing ab exercises? That you’re just going to feel in your back?
  2. I think this works, but it strikes me as a poor solution because I don’t think people should have to squeeze their backside in order to use their front side.
  3. I actually don’t mind this one when it works, but I would hope that the next progression would be to do it without having to tuck the pelvis.
  4. This one is similarly helpful to the first one. If you know what your tVA is, and are able to engage it, you’re probably also able to engage your abs when you do a plank.
  5. This is a much more challenging ab exercise than a plank, so if a person can’t plank without their back taking over, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to reverse crunch.

We use a simple exercise alternative at Custom Strength that has my clients saying things like “I really feel that in the lower abs”.

What is this amazing alternative exercise?
To find out, read through the following 17 paragraphs that vaguely describe it and then buy the amazing fitness product solution that is regularly $97, but because you’re special, you can buy it today only for $27! Kidding! It’s in the next paragraph.

The ab exercise for those who feel planks in their low back before they feel it in their abs is a bench plank. Which is a plank done with the forearms on a bench instead of on the floor.

bench plank

Here’s the simple truth of the plank: for some people, it’s too advanced. How can you tell if it’s too advanced for you? Just answer this one question:

Do you feel it in your back more than in your abs?

If you answered yes, then planks are too advanced for you. I know this sounds disheartening because it seems everyone recommends planks as the basic building block for strengthening the abs, and now I’m saying you’re too weak to start with the basics. That’s not it. I am disparaging someone, but it’s not you, it’s the people suggesting planks are the best basic exercise for strengthening the abs. If that was good advice, this article wouldn’t be one of the most visited pages on my blog and the average visitor wouldn’t stay on the page for almost six minutes.

So, if you’re someone who feels their back more than their abs when doing a plank (or other ab exercises), try bench planks, and keep the coaching tips below in mind:

  • We cue “ribs to pelvis” or “think of making the space between the bottom of the rib cage and the top of the pelvis as small as possible”.
  • We coach our clients to hold the plank as long as they can or until they feel it in their back more than their abs. If that is only 10 seconds, then we still get them to stop. Then we have them rest for a few seconds and do it again. And maybe even a third time. The idea here is to ask what are you accomplishing if you continue to hold an ab exercise when you’re feeling your back working instead of your abs?
  • If the person starts to feel it more in the back, before we have them stop completely, we cue them to bend their knees slightly. This often allows them to keep going for a while.

Why does the bench plank work so well? Quite simply, it’s just geometry. Raising the upper body reduces the horizontal distance between your forearms and your feet, which reduces the distance your core has to stabilize.

Interestingly a stability ball plank, which is usually considered a plank progression, also reduces this length. That means the stability ball plank is both a progression (because of the instability) and a regression (because of the horizontal distance).

What’s that about bending the knees? If you’re wondering why we cue people to bend their knees a bit if they start to feel the plank in their back, it’s based on a theory I have about hip flexors taking over for abs. Did you know that the psoas muscle (one of the hip flexors) originates in the low back? It then comes through the pelvis and attaches to the front of the thigh.

When you do a plank (or a bench plank), the hip flexors often assist the abs, but for some people, the hip flexor can take over instead of just assisting. Because they are attached to your low back, they can pull you into that sagging position. Bending your knees a bit can relax your hip flexors, releaving that pull on the back. And with them out of the way, your brain will typically give the nod to your abs to step up and hold the position. Or at least that’s my theory, and based on how effective this cue is, I think there’s something to it.

So, if you want to strengthen your abs but find your back is the limiting factor, take your plank up a notch (literally) and try it from a bench.

And now that you’re thinking about your abs, are you also thinking “maybe I should start working out”? If you are and you’re in the Ottawa area, get in touch with us via our contact form:

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Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

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Ab exercises for better abs?
6 exercises for low back health
Lessons for Low Back Pain part 1 & part 2

23 thoughts on “Ab exercise: If your back gets sore before your abs…”

  1. Hi Shane, did you try the bench version of the plank? With clients whose back is quick to get involved, I have often had success with this while also cueing them to bring their ribcage to their pelvis and pelvis to ribcage. The other thing is that I tell clients to stop as soon as they feel it in their back. This might literally be 10 seconds at first. And I literally mean, stop at 10 seconds in that case. Then try to wait another 10 or 20 seconds and do another one. Feel abs? Great! Even if it is only for 5 seconds. Continue to do this in your workouts and you will likely find that the 10 seconds will increase over time. It may take time, but it usually improves.

    If it doesn’t improve, then you may find you do well with seeing a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor. They are usually well-versed in helping someone get the core firing again.

  2. Thing is my back does all the work in any core/ab exercise I do. My anterior pelvic tilt is so bad and my back is so used to doing everything that it simply won’t let my core work. So frustrating as the more you try to work your core muscles the more your back just kicks in and won’t let your core muscles do the work

  3. You may also find core exercises on your back are a better option as you get stronger. I thought I had some videos up but I see I don’t. I will soon be putting up a core progression article that will cover this. In the meantime, take a look at these: https://youtu.be/Xfhdcu_bOmI

  4. I hope it helps. Do you have a good physical therapist or chiropractor or athletic therapist? I’m a big fan of hands on help.

  5. I am having back pain when I try to bring my knee toward my chest while resisting. I have a short leg from a motorcycle accident many years ago, so I know my pelvis is a bit whacked out. I will try this. I know when I went to my PCP it was so cursory that I think it was worthless. I am also going to work the IT band with a lacrosse ball

  6. Thank you for the article! I had hip replacement last year and I’m trying to get my abs stronger but my low back hurts so bad! I am going to bend my knees when I do my abs next time! It makes sense about the hip flexors because my back hurt after my surgery and they showed me that they go around to my lower back. My core and back are weak. Trying to get stronger.

  7. I hope it works for you! It’s tough, especially for athletes, to stop an exercise very early in it (like 20 seconds into a plank), or to regress it. But it is so much more effective than pushing through and sucking up the pain. Almost universally when we go this route, my clients see significant and consistent improvement in how long they can do these exercises without pain. That said – significant is relative. Sometimes it starts with 15 second bench planks, but within a week it is 20 or 25 second ones…then 35…And all the while the abs are actually getting stronger instead of taking a break while the back gets sore. (not that I have a strong opinion about this concept!)

  8. I have the exact same experience as Nate below as an avid runner in my years in highschool . Nobody I know of has this issue of failing at ab exercises due to lowet back pain before I even feel it in my abs. i have been plagued with this for quite a while and its unfortunate because I probably have done more damage from being pushed through ab work during practices by coaches and instructors who lack this understanding. Thanks for your post! I will give your exercise a shot!

  9. Hey Nate, Glad to have helped! And I’m now very sorry that it has taken me this long to reply! Fingers crossed you’re having new planking success.

  10. Hey Mark, first off, apologies for the super late reply – I didn’t see it until today. I do hope you’re finding help. Unfortunately I really can’t answer specific medical questions: you really need to get that from your health care practitioner. What I am discussing is what I often see with clients, but even there, I much prefer them to be seeing a good manual therapist (physio, chiro, athletic therapist osteo) as their primary help. Exercise is often part of the solution but shouldn’t be the main solution – and there are so many things it could be that it’s impossible to tell via internet. So sorry as I’m sure this seems like an unhelpful answer, but I’m afraid it’s all I can offer.

  11. I have a question to the guy who wrote the article. I have been fighting lower back pain for several years. I am 25 now and I am in back pain every day. I have been looking for years of why my back hurts, including MRI scans, xrays, mass amounts of pain meds and muscle relaxers and still no change. I just found this and I’m pretty damn sure this is my problem. I am a physique bodybuilding and when it comes to competing, I am in a position of squeezing my Abs for a long period of time. After a few minutes my lower back burns and hurts bad and almost feels like the spine is being crushed by the surrounding muscle. I am also in the military and unfortunately I am being medical discharged because I am unable to run and sometimes even walk because of this vice of a grip on my spine. Do you believe I have this issue? And what can I do to fix it or at least get on track to elevate the pain?

    Thanks for your time.

  12. Nope – not to the floor. Just bend it a bit. The goal is to relax the hip flexor a bit so that the abdominals can take over.

  13. All of the pieces are now connected. I’ve always felt like an alien watching everyone plank and do ab workouts so perfectly when all they did for me was require assistance for me to stand back up! The hip flexor theory brings it full circle because I’m a distance runner and always around mile 8 or 9 my hip flexors twinge a little and I have to spend additional warm-up / post-run-stretching time to keep them loose. So it actually IS how you say it is for my body! Well done! You just saved me from a lot of embarrassment and made me feel a lot more normal! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Off to plank successfully now….

  14. Iv been looking for someone to explain this to me for ages this makes so much sence, when ever I do planks or even if I tuck my feet under a chair When doing sit ups which would be using my hip flexors and making my back tight and it normally blows my back out for a couple of days..
    Thankyou for this article

  15. plank with one knee bent–looks like a good exercise but in the picture both knees are bent and without a video or starting/ending position, I can’t tell how to do it.

  16. Wow amzing I have been working out for one year now off and on and have always felt lower pain in my back. Trainers have told me i have an arch back. my program for abs was sit ups with the ball, planking but still hurt so I always just stuck to other parts of my body.
    now I’m taking my gym very serious. I have tryed so many ways trying to activate my abs and make them work. Reading this article has given me grate attention and understanding to what to do and can’t wait to hit te gym and start my new work out :) thank you

  17. This is the most informative article i have read on the topic. I do have APT or an overly pronunced lordotic curve in my spine, and my back always hurts when I do any kind of abs exercises. I thought the problem may have been the hip flexor but never had anyone confirming that. I will try bending the knees to excude the hip flexor from the plank but my question is, when doing crunches, arent the knee flexed? Then, from what you are saying here, this should reduce the pull of the hip flexor on the spine therefore allowing my abs to work on the movement. But my back still hurts when doing crunches.
    Anyhow, i will try the plank with bent knees. Thanks fo your awesome article!!!

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