The majority of patients who walk through our doors who say they’re training their abdominal muscles on a regular basis or previously did train those muscles using exercises like planks or sit-ups etc. If you’ve seen some of our other videos or read any other articles, you may be aware of certain exercises we might advise to steer clear of if you’re training and are affected by back pain. Leg raises are one such example, as this type of exercise can cause a lot of pressure to affect the lower back. So why might you be getting this type of back pain in the first place? Often this type of lower back pain crops up right at the bottom of the back, about the area your belt would sit. In those patients, invariably it’s a case that the patient is actually failing to engage their core correctly.

What Causes The Back Pain?

Taking the example of crunches, or sit-ups, let’s say you’re performing the exercise as normal. Are you aware of how to engage your core to protect your spine and improve your strength effectively? You may start off the first exercise with perfect form, but after a few repetitions you might also lose a bit of that form and start to put more pressure through joints in the lower back that aren’t designed to bear that weight. If you do know how to engage your core, you might well start off with good core engagement, but like your form this engagement may also dwindle as you get further into the workout. Just like any other exercise at the gym, repetitions done with good form are much more valuable than ones done without good form. Altering your position while doing certain exercises can cause wear and tear, irritating your lower back and can put a lot of pressure straight into the lower back joints. Since the majority of the pressure tends to hit the lumbar-sacral junction (L5-S1), this is commonly where a disc injury and where the sciatic nerve is most likely to be affected as it is the location of the sciatic nerve root. An injury in this area can cause pain at the site in the lower back, as well as cause pain radiating down the legs.

How To Engage Your Core

So if you’re not doing it already, how do you engage your core? It’s quite simple once you know how. Take a deep breath out. Follow this with a deep breath in while drawing your belly button towards your spine. Now breathe out and try and hold that belly button towards your spine. It should feel like a corset tightening around the midsection. If you pop your hands around your waist, you should feel your muscles tighten up and compress rather than stick out. This exercise is called a Vacuum, a simple core activation exercise, and can be repeated for 10, 15 or 20 repetitions at a time by simply disengaging the core and starting again. This will be the first step in strengthening your core and form the foundation of all other core strengthening exercises. A lot of our patients struggle to do this when they first come into the clinic, and we even have bodybuilders or powerlifters who aren’t able to engage their core.

What Effect Does Core Engagement Have?

When you’re performing your exercises, you’ll need to still make sure you’re performing the exercise with correct form, but you’ll also need to engage your core and be able to keep it engaged throughout the repetition. This will provide stability for the lumbar spine and allow you to effectively improve on the strength of your lower back and core. It also slightly alters the focus from just performing that exercise as you think it should be performed, to making sure you’re activating the right muscle group. Instead of just looking like you’re performing the exercise correctly, you need to ensure you’re engaging the core and re-engaging as you go through the repetitions. Repeatedly performing any form of exercise or weight-lifting without proper form, alongside any other factors, like poor posture or spinal misalignment, can cause increased amount of pressure to affect those joints in the lower back that are susceptible to injury. That’s why a lot of people tend to experience back pain when they’re training abdominal muscles, as they’re often focusing on strengthening larger muscles and not focusing on core engagement.

We hope you found this article interesting! If you have any questions, specifics relating to your particular circumstance or any nuance advice you need on certain exercises, do feel free to reach out either by emailing us at, or by calling us on 0203 947 3222 to speak with a member of the team. If you are suffering with back or neck pain and would like to see how we can help, feel free to call us to discuss your case or book an appointment. A first appointment with us is an initial consultation where we will complete an examination, perform X-rays if clinically indicated, and provide treatment.

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