4 Exercises to Strengthen Your Core and How to Program Them For Lower Back Pain
Raise your hand if you watched The Royal Wedding this weekend.
But I only tuned in because Julian was up so early Saturday morning and there was nothing else to watch.
Yeah, yeah….that’s it.
Anyway, I’ve got an excellent guest post for you today from Florida based trainer William Richards covering a topic pretty much everyone can get on board with…..
…..low back pain and how to choose or modify the best bang-for-your-buck exercises to help nip it in the bud.
4 Exercises to Strengthen Your Core and How to Program Them For Back Pain
When it comes to core training and sensitive lower backs I have been through the gauntlet.
I have experimented on myself and have worked with so many frustrated clients who want to train their core but always seem to re-injure their backs or stay on what I call their own pain cycle.
They go to the gym with minor inflammation thinking a good workout is what they need. They knock out what they think is a “safe” workout and spend the last 20-30 minutes hitting some hanging leg raises, decline sit-ups and maybe even some weighted jumping ball slams (because they heard a stronger core will beat their back pain). The intention behind this workout was good and hopeful but they go home and slowly start to experience this gradual increase in pain and tightness in their lower back.
Fast forward 24 hours and mornings feel like you have a tree branch wedged between two vertebrae.
Forget bending over to tie your shoes let alone put pants on. You feel 80 years old until the Extra Strength Tylenol and Ibuprofen concoction kicks in and you get a small glimpse of what it feels like to be pain-free and healthy. For most this is the only sense of relief they will ever experience.
We all know lower back pain can be complex. There could be a lot of different factors at play here but one of the key topics I want to shed light on is the core training approach.
How Should I Approach Core Training With Lower Back Pain?
In my experience with coaching corrective core training for sensitive backs, there are three key points I find myself covering over and over again.
(1) Safe modified approaches to “modern” exercises that have the sensitive back in mind.
When you here modification you immediately think “an easier version of what your showing me.” Which is true in most cases, but when dealing with a sensitive back your not looking for “easy” you’re looking for a certain pain threshold that the individual/you can control.
This threshold is extremely important to coaching sensitive backs because that very threshold can put someone on the couch for a week popping pain meds or training and moving towards freedom and a faster recovery.
So when picking and executing your core exercises think more about how the variation is affecting the way your lower back feels in the moment AND 24 hours after doing it.
Nothing you should be doing will consists of training through pain. Often times any irritation or discomfort from an exercise will kick in the next day once all the feel good chemicals have worn off.
(2) The correct coaching through these modifications to safely progress to the level of difficulty that is safe for you.
Once you have dialed in on your own safe threshold it’s time to start modifying the exercise to fit your needs. There are tons of ways to do this so I will highlight a few of my top cues here.
If you’re experiencing pain:
-1- Check the position of your pelvis.
Is it neutral?
Especially with exercises like the ones you will see below it’s paramount that you take unwanted stress OFF the lumbar spine. Some of this stress is commonly caused by an overextended or flexed lumbar spine. If you’re experiencing pain, simply being overextended or over flexed will only get worse when you add compression or a form of challenge to the position.
Note From TG: Here’s a great way to teach/cue people how to (safely) move their spine into flexion and extension IN CONTROL. Sometimes back pain is the result of being “stuck” in an over extended or flexed position. Allowing people “access” to range of motion can be a game changer.
-2- Bring the loads or limbs closer to your body.
Try this out: If you have back pain, take a 10 lb plate and hold it straight out in front with your arms stretched out. How does that feel on your lower back?
Now bring the weight closer to your chest. Did that bring relief?
The majority of instability issues will produce pain with the outstretched arm. The closer the load or limbs are to your body the less your body (in this case your lumbar spine) has to work to keep you upright.
You can apply this cue to exercises such as the plank (side and front) or a Pallof press. The more fully weight bearing you are with the plank the more stress it will put on the irritated lower back. The same goes for the Pallof Press.
The further outstretched your arms are the more demand it will place on the lower back.
The more sensitive the lower back the more pronounced this will be.
(3) A Mindset Change
When training your core for back pain relief you have to adopt this way of thinking.
It’s not about the exercise you’re doing but the position of your painful points when doing the exercise. I did a quick 1-minute explanation of what I mean below:
Where Should I Start With Core Training?
Now that we have covered how you should be approaching core training, let’s get into applying what we learned. Below I want to show you four of my favorite exercises to use and modify for various levels of clients.
Let’s dive in.
1. Banded Quarter Crunch
One of the biggest reasons I love this exercise so much is because of the full upper body muscle recruitment it requires. Sometimes as new lifters or even those who are more seasoned we forget that bracing the trunk and engaging our body with a certain movement requires a lot of interaction between joints and muscle fibers.
To save on energy we subconsciously do the bare minimum to get the exercise done.
This is where weak links in our chain are created.
When doing these banded crunches I want you to think about bringing your arms down and out and engaging your lats before you begin moving anything. When in position be sure your spine is neutral, shoulder blades are tucked down and back and your chin is pulled in towards your neck.
When you go for lift-off, the goal is to move everything together and using the trunk as your primary mover while everything else upstream stays rigid and stiff. One way I like to cue this exercise so that the person isn’t trying to do too much of a sit up is to think about pushing your for-head up towards the ceiling. This will actually make the exercise seem a bit harder and trigger an even more intense muscle fiber recruitment.
You can get creative with this when it comes to the sets and reps scheme. You can do just reps or holds for a number of breath cycles. One rep would be a lift-off followed by a full cycle of breathing (inhale and exhale). For holds, after lift off, you can cycle 3-4 breaths before returning to the starting position.
2. Banded ISO-Deadbug
The dead bug can be a major let down for someone with a sensitive back. Most articles you find on the internet for lower back pain and core training you will find the dead bug. Unfortunately, those who take the dead bug at face value and don’t know how to tailor it to fit them are the ones who quit on the exercise before any benefit is seen.
In this video, I show you four variations that you can work from easy to more difficult with this exercise. We are going to use a similar band like the exercise above to help with upper body engagement.
3. Banded Sit Backs With ISO Hold
One thing I am a huge fan of other than hole-in-the-wall (probably should get shut down) Mexican restaurants are exercises that are designed or coached not only to make the individual stronger but to teach and groove healthy movement patterns.
One of these movements I see butchered is the hip hinge.
We do tons of exercises that include the hip hinge but with every rep and set we are putting ourselves in more danger than anything else. It’s hard to find an extra 30 minutes a day to practice proper bracing, coordination or healthy movement patterns separately. Which is why I will always work them into my workout like you see in this video.
Key points to remember with this exercise.
The most import thing is what I said HERE
I care more about the integrity of your body position then I do how many sets reps or weight you can do. You have to earn those gradual increments.
You want to stay within your pain threshold. No pushing through the pain to get a better burn. Leave that to the people who enjoy soaking in salt baths every night and are popping muscle relaxers and Percocet just to sleep at night.
4. Banded Birddog
This is another one of those exercises that can lead to frustration and more pain if not taken in small increments depending on how sensitive your back is to this type of movement.
I didn’t respect this exercise when I first introduced it into my personal rehab program. Instead, I just did what it LOOKED like I should be doing and went from there.
I want to help break this habit of the copycat approach. The more you know WHY you’re doing the variation of the exercise the better you will understand what you’re doing.
When doing this exercise, I want you to focus on the different modifications that are available with this move. We talked earlier about your specific pain threshold. These modifications should help keep in the safe zone.
Key things to remember:
Don’t rush the exercise. Start by breaking it down into segments and make sure there are no gaps or missing factors that are causing your pain.
You can attach the band to both the wrist or ankle to add difficulty to that individual limb either in the full Bird Dog or broken segments.
I Know What You’re Probably Thinking
Well, what exercise should I start with or which one is best for _________.
Don’t fall into this trap.
Remember, It’s not about what exercise you’re doing that will unlock your potential for long-term relief. It’s how you approach the exercise that you’re using. Focus on the position of your body BEFORE you even start the exercise then use the exercise to challenge that healthy position.
If you apply this to every core exercise, or any exercise for that matter, your ability to train towards lasting relief will significantly improve.
About the Author
After rupturing my L5-S1 disk over 7 years ago I was told that surgery and pain meds were my only option for a “pain-free” life.
I made a choice as a fitness professional to relentlessly pursue the truth to whether or not exercise could truly be the secret to getting relief.
After 10+ years coaching in the fitness industry I now focus the majority of my time teaching people how to pursue their own drug and surgery free path to back pain relief.
Aside from coaching you can find me on the Gulf Coast of Florida, surf fishing with my two kids and wife or eating my weight in Mexican food. For more info on me and what we have going on you can check out my website HERE.