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:
- a. strengthen your abs
- squeeze your glutes during the exercise
- “tuck” your pelvis
- engage your TVA (transversus abdominus)
- reverse crunches
Here’s why I think those recommendations aren’t great:
- How? By doing ab exercises? That you’re just going to feel in your back?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.