They’re Doing It Wrong.
Walk into any gym and you’re sure to see half a dozen people in the mat section flailing around, doing ab work to try to get that 6 pack. Maybe you’re one of them. All too often, unfortunately, a lot of the work being done on the abdominals is not as effective as it could be. While there are a lot of ways to improve your ab workouts, let’s focus on one simple trick to really engage your core and work your upper and lower abdominals every time, and stop lower back pain along the way.
The Secret: Keeping the Back Flat
First of all, no matter how much you exercise the abs, you need to get rid of the belly fat through total body exercise and eating right to get that six pack to show. If you still want to strengthen the ab muscles, you have to actually feel the exercise in your abs during your workout. We can do leg lifts and planks the wrong way all day and feel it in the hips and lower back, and completely miss the point and the intended benefits. If it’s hurting your lower back, the pressure is going onto your lumbar spine and not into strengthening the core. We want to take the stress off of the spine, and redirect it onto the abdominal muscles.
The secret here is keeping the lower back flat on the ground. When you lie down, the natural curve of the spine will raise your lower back off of the ground. This is how the back works, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. The problem comes when we lift our legs to perform some type of ab exercises, and that pressure goes onto this arch. Our goal here is to close that gap, but how do we do it?
It’s All in the Hips
If you lie down with your legs straight and your arms at your sides, and bring one hand to your lower back, you’ll see just how high it comes off the ground. If you raise your legs just a little bit off the ground, you may feel it come up even higher as your hips act as the fulcrum. We want to use our abdominal muscles and our glutes (butt muscles) to tilt the hips backwards and flatten out this arch just a bit. By pulling up with our abs, and squeezing down with our glutes, we can perform the Hip Tuck and feel that gap close. Practicing holding this simple move with our legs straight on the floor, for increasingly longer period of time, will prepare us to work up into our more advanced ab exercises.
Tucking the tailbone and tilting the hips is the first step, but as we progress to harder exercises, it might not be enough. That’s when our upper back and shoulders come into play to recruit more strength from more of our abs. Keeping the arms straight and lifting them up to around a 45 degree angle, reaching as far forward as you can, helps to pull the shoulders off the ground. Remember to keep the lower back flat on the ground, rather than bringing up the entire back up and into a seated balance. Holding the flat back position with the shoulders up recruits even more of the abdominals into the move, which you’ll definitely feel.
Pain in the Neck
Some people may start to feel a strain or pain in the neck after bringing up the shoulders. While tricky at first, it is possible to take the stress off of the neck. Practice relaxing the head and neck back from between the shoulders, looking up at the ceiling rather than forward through the hands. This should lower the head and neck slightly, but still maintain a straight line from the top of the head to the middle of the back. This is a great move to practice next to a mirror, or with a camera recording your side profile that you can look at and consult after.
Hands on the Butt
You may also be tempted to put your hands under your butt to take the pressure off of your back. While this accomplishes the same end result of flattening out the lower back, it also takes some pressure off of your abdominals, making the exercise less effective. Instead, to make this move a little easier but still challenge yourself, you can lift your legs up higher and bring your shoulders further off the ground to maintain that flat back while still working the abs.
The more your practice and perform these exercises, the easier it will get. Keep progressing and challenging yourself by lowering the legs, and bringing the shoulders up higher, reaching further and crunching more. You can also progress into more advanced, and more fun, variations of floor exercises including single leg and combination moves. Keep at it and enjoy your new ab strength!