There is definitely a list of ab exercises that you need to stop doing if you have back pain. Odds are, your doctor told you to “be more active” or to “strengthen your core”. What they don’t tell you is that you could go to the gym and do the exact exercise that will end up putting you right back in his office or worse, his surgery table. I don’t want you to fear re-hurting yourself doing the wrong exercise, so let’s cover exactly what you need to know when it comes to training your abs for back pain.

Your doctor doesn’t have a fat clue as to what core exercises you should do to help with your back pain, so for safe measure throw everything they say out!



Boy, was I wrong about that one! Ever since I can remember the only ab exercises I ever did was what the big guys on TV and YouTube were doing. A couple years of that then I switched to doing zero direct core work and just relying on my major lifts to “work my core”. I have had a few different theories over the years when it comes to my abs but It was far from what really worked. When it comes to back pain, you really need to understand that you are automatically placed in a different category. Sure, it would be cool to be able to plank with 90lbs sitting on my back but until I have the basics down this is only going to make my pain worse. If you’re waking up in the morning with crushing back pain and walking into the gym after work with that same chronic pain, you need to make a bee-line to the furthest back corner, grab a mat and don’t pay attention to what anyone else is doing. You need to reprogram what you think a good ab workout looks like and that’s exactly what this article is going to teach you.

Most ab exercises consist of some kind of rotation and or flexion (crunch). This is where hundreds of people suffering from back pain are misguided by their doctors. The funny thing is, textbooks and common gym talk will tell you that strengthening the abs using sit-ups and similar exercises is what helps cure back pain but the truth is, there isn’t much research out there that supports that specific claim. Unfortunately, a lot of people, including myself have used sit-ups to elevate back pain in hopes of strengthening the core. Wrong!

You have to change your thinking. I am going to tell you exactly what you need to do to strengthen the core correctly to finally find freedom from your pain.

This is what happens when you do them wrong

Studies have shown that if you do enough sit-ups it will actually do more damage than good. With each sit-up, your forcing a compression load onto the discs in the lower back. You do this over and over and eventually, it’s going to get fed up and start giving you issues. Think of it as someone hitting your thumb with a hammer softly over and over. At first, it may not hurt but over time it’s going to get worse and worse to the point where simply touching it causes severe pain. Well, that’s the same thing that’s going on in your lower back. Not only the compression but simply doing sit-ups and crunches does nothing for the average structure of the core. There is so much more to what actually supports your spine and keeps it aligned and pain-free. The strengthening aspect is important but the big take way is the way you do it and knowing exactly what you’re training for.

So is it better to train for strength or endurance when it comes to relieving my back pain?

Endurance, endurance, endurance. I want you to NEVER think for a second that you need to increase the weight to make it harder and more worthwhile. That may be the case with other training programs but not when it comes to your core. Even pro athletes need to be under the same endurance based structure. Yeah, it’s great to be super powerful for short bursts but what’s going to stand the test of time? Your core doesn’t need brute strength, it needs endurance. Your core is responsible for the rigidity of your spine. If your core is only good for an hour of standing and about 30 minutes of moving boxes what good does that do for you? You need to train your core to last. To have the endurance it needs to remain strong and rigid throughout the entire day. This is what prevents back disorders. It’s the people who only train for strength that go out and spend a weekend in the yard and spend all day Sunday laid up in bed with a bottle of ibuprofen. At some point early in that weekend, his/her body lost its core stamina and started relying on surrounding muscles to do all the work.

The takeaway for this.

You need to be very intentional about the way you train your core to relieve your chronic back pain. Remember, the goal is not to be the strongest but to have the most endurance to stay strong, remain tight and supportive throughout the day.

How to train your abs for lower back pain relief

If there is anything I need you to really understand, it’s going to be what I am about to tell you…In order to relieve your back pain, you need to train your core in a neutral position.

Do me a favor and read that 2 more times before moving on.

This means before applying the resistance or movement to either the upper or lower half of the body, your core needs to be pulled in, squeezed tight and in a neutral position. On top of that, stop holding your breath while doing your exercises! I am guilty when it comes to doing this. Knowing how to brace the core is key but being able to breathe while you brace is even more important. The “take a deep breath and squeeze technique actually is useful with some major lifts but when it comes to your core training and daily movements, it’s not. You need to start taking deep full breaths while you train your core. It’s going to make the exercise 4x harder but you will get 4x more out of the exercise. You see, one of the biggest issues you’re having with your back pain is an untrained/improperly trained core. Even if you are super athletic, if your core has not been properly trained then it’s worthless and will lead to back pain later. I have been in the gym for over 13 years, you would think I would be pain-free by now! Wrong. This is where the basics need to come back in. If I could sum up the cure for back pain when it comes to exercise it would be training for improved motor control, improving muscle endurance and training with the spine in a neutral position. That’s it!  Before doing any exercises, if we were just more mindful of what’s going on with our core we would get so much more out of each lift and would actually see more strength improvements than doing the opposite.

These are the exact exercises that I use.

I never for a minute want you to think that I am just pulling this stuff from left field and putting it on paper. I have over 6 years of failure and success when it comes to learning to control my back pain. These are the exact core exercises that I still use today to keep my back pain at bay.

Breathing: With each of these exercises you are going to use the exact same breathing pattern. Before starting, contract your stomach, sides and low back to the point where you feel a strong “seal” around your spine. From here you want to maintain the contraction while continuing to breathe. This WILL be difficult at first but you are building strength in your lungs and making them more efficient.

For someone just starting out learning to master these movements are key. Don’t worry about getting advanced until these become second nature.

Farmers Carries

Dead Bugs

Stir The Pot

Leg Drops

Pallof Press

Front Planks and Side Planks

Bird Dogs

When working through back pain the key to any exercise is to understand your pain threshold. This means know when to hang it up. Back Pain is not something you just work through. The pain is something you work UP to but stop before it starts. It’s all about reducing sensitivity and increasing the ability to move pain-free.


Tell me about you.

We sit at desks, work at computers, commute to work and play on our phones all day. Which one of these habits do you think has the biggest factor in your low back pain? Let me know in the comments below!


To your recovery,


19 thoughts on “Ab Exercises that are bad for your back.

  1. Sounds great, but can you take it a step further? I am a 53 yr old male and had fusion surgery L3 to S1 about three years ago. I am lucky to find a doctor to see me after a three level fusion, let alone a trainer or PT. Where do I look?

    1. Hey Steve, There comes a point where you would need to break away from reading general articles and getting into some kind of coaching. To truly get a better grasp on your own personal situation and having something designed for you that makes sense and is safe, you would need coaching. I am happy to have this conversation with you if coaching is something you would like to pursue. A lot of PT’s wont work with you simply because they don’t have the experience, patience or know how.

      Let me know. You can email me at [email protected]

  2. My son is 16 and had rods put in his back 2 years ago due to scoliosis. He sits long periods each day, gaming…school…he wants to start going to the gym but I am very worried about this because he is still growing…he has put on about 30 pounds…and basically…I’m just scared. Could you point me in the right direction so that he will know which machines are good and bad? Should I get a personal trainer? Thank you.

    1. Hey Daisy,

      Yes, I would suggest finding someone he can work with. In person will be hard to find someone who knows what they are talking about. You honestly have a better shot finding someone online. The only problem with that is there is a learning curve since the trainer will not be able to be there with him. His two main focus points right now need to first start with auditing his life. Taking out or improving the things he is doing that is/will cause him issue if he continues to do it. I go into depth about that in this course. All this weel and next I am covering the second most important thing and that is learning to train his core the RIGHT way. The second article for the week goes out tomorrow. You can get plugged in to receive these articles HERE
      I have LOTS of free content you and him can consume through the website. Good place to start is HERE That should give you some of the best steps you will find on the internet!

  3. I’m in tears with excitement over finding your site! I need to start somewhere and my surgeon has no advice whatsoever. Not knocking him, he’s a great surgeon but his help stops there.
    I was fused at L5 S1 for kernel 4 spondylolisthesis with Pars defect, 14 months later Hardware was removed (that was January 2017). My pain was at its worst after hardware was removed. But my CT and MRI show I am fused and stable. I recieved 2 injections, 1 directly into the nerves at L5 S1 and one in the sacral joint. Not sure which one helped but every day I feel stronger and more improvement!
    I have been an athlete me I was 14 and I am currently 47. I ran 9 miles a week and lifted weights 3 days a week. I played volleyball, biked and hiked on a regular basis. From the time my severe pain began to today it has been 5 years.
    I realize I may never be able to run again but at heart I am still an athlete and I have a burning desire to get back at it. Never the less the pain I have endured has been crippling and in scared to death to do anything that might cause that pain to return.
    I am pouring over your sight hoping to find what will work for me and to come up with some realistic goals to get back to being my healthiest me!
    Thank you for providing this source and for the thousands of hours you have spent to help people like me!

    1. Hey Bridget,

      Thanks so much for those kind words. I really hope you can find value from the site! There is a lot of content in the archives so keep digging and feel free to reach out to me if you can’t find something covering a specific question. Your number one focus needs to be building a foundation around getting off your pain cycle. Areas that include how you move and the habits you are stuck using day in and day out. Learn to move properly and use the muscles you have then you can get even more focused with specific areas if they are really a problem. The “Start Here” on the top right portion of the home page is a good place to get the ball rolling.


  4. Am 72 male, fusion(l4-5 e years ago. Seems like my pelvis wants to tilt since surgery and can’t walk very far without surgical brace. Want to remedy and need a plan. Can you help?

  5. Nice article, agree with it, however the exercises.. you said “In order to relieve your back pain, you need to train your core in a neutral position.” well, read it three times, knows what it means, but not sure for you:) no offense, since none of the exercisers are in neutral but rather contracted position for lower back (maybe the walking with bell is).
    /Stock pilates teaches neutral for those who want to check.

    1. Csaba,

      My spine is in a neutral position in all of these exercises.

      I am not sure if you understand what a neutral spine is.

      Just because your legs are bent does not mean your spine is not neutral. You don’t have to be standing to be in a neutral position.

  6. I have a longer history of working on my feet damaging my back than there is room for here, but I thank you for your post. I had L5 S1 fusion/graft/blah blah 18 months ago. PT told me I’d never run again and never do yoga. Surgeon said the exact opposite. PT said he only knows how to cut. Surgeon said it is my body, not hers. So there is the issue. Anyway, I am getting used to having the body of an 85 yr old, due to atrophy from being bedridden for 15 mths prior to surgery, then post-op weakness, and have tried to “get back into shape” since to no avail. I could work out one day, then hobble around for a week after, and working out once a week does nothing. I found your site and did the Stir the Pot and felt good burning IMMEDIATELY!!! The thing is, I have to be strong to do controlled movements, but I have to do movements to get strong enough to do controlled movements, and it is a catch 22. I did Stir the Pot and could only do 5 in each direction on my knees and LOVED IT. Thank you so very much. People just don’t get it, and so they cannot offer info that helps. I will postpone my workouts for a while and only do a set I am building out of yours. That will get me there!!!! Also, Viniyoga is great. It resets the symmetry of bones and joints in a very slow soft manner, both upper and lower back, hips, shoulders…everything. Thanks again, and keep the info flowing!!!

    1. Aly,

      From the way you write, you seem like you would be a pretty cool person to hang out with haha.

      I feel your pain. It can be a catch 22 and the best thing you can do is take it one day at a time. Our bodies do crazy things in order to protect us from hurting it more. This means over tight muscles and weird places, cramps and random spasms. That’s great that you were able to do Stir the Pot so well. Keep it up and always stay UNDER your pain threshold. Your goal is to continue to prime your body to get used to movement again. If one circle is all you can do then be proud of that circle and shoot for two in a couple days. Stick to the most basic of basic movements and own them. Don’t worry about where you used to be or where you are now. Just shoot for progress and the least amount of pain as possible. It will get better. Keep reading and if you ever have any questions email me.

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