If You Have a Bad Back, Trainers Recommend These 11 Ab Exercises For Strength and Support

If you suffer from a bad back, you know just how frustrating it can be to do everyday tasks, including workouts and especially ab exercises. That's because your core and your back are closely linked. In fact, your back muscles — including the lats in your upper back and the erector spinae, which run along your spinal cord — are actually considered a part of your core. So are your glutes and all the muscles in your belly area, including your abs, obliques, and transverse abdominis, the deep muscles that extend from your ribs to your pelvis and wrap around to your spine.

Why does this matter? Back pain can be caused by many factors, and it's imperative that you talk to your doctor to determine what's behind yours; but it's possible that having a weak core might actually be to blame (as it was for this editor). Even if not, building strength in this muscle group has the potential to ease some of your pain.

Eric and Ryan Johnson, NSCA-certified trainers and cofounders of Homage Fitness, told POPSUGAR that core training can improve your stability, build a foundation of support, and get you on your way to relieving back pain. They also recommended consulting a doctor before you get started to rule out major health risks like spine injuries or even cancer.

Ab Exercises For a Bad Back

Once you're cleared to work out, Eric and Ryan recommended four types of movement and several different exercises to strengthen your core. Don't let the complicated names scare you; we'll go over exactly how to do each move ahead.

  • Foundational: Before you work the muscles, start by setting your breathing in sequence and working mobility through your hips, spine, and shoulders. Exercises: supine diaphragmatic breathing, assisted leg lowering, side-lying thoracic rotation, and bird dogs.
  • Anti-Extension: resisting extension of your spine. Exercises: dead bug, elbow plank, and stir the pot.
  • Anti-Rotation: resisting rotation in your lower back. Exercises: tall kneeling belly punch and standing landmine anti-rotation.
  • Anti-Lateral Flexion: resisting sideways bending or movement from side to side. Exercises: side plank and one-arm farmer's carry.

You can do one move from each category to activate your core at the beginning of a workout, or do them within your workout as a superset. Stop if you feel any pain, and focus on engaging your core through every slow, steady movement.

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Foundation: Supine Diaphragmatic Breathing

Before working your abs, Ryan and Eric said it's a good idea to properly sequence your breathing. This exercise engages your diaphragm, which is another key part of your core. Here's how to do it:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
  • Place the first two fingers of your hands just above your hip flexors, on either side of your body.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose, feeling the air flow through your belly and making your fingers rise. Hold the breath for one to two seconds.
  • Exhale forcefully through your mouth. Feel your abs contract and your fingers sink.
  • Repeat three to six times, then rest for one to two minutes. Complete three sets total.
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Foundation: Side-Lying Thoracic Rotations

If you have poor shoulder mobility, Eric and Ryan recommended this foundational move to open up and stretch your core.

  • Lie on your side with your top leg bent. Rest your bent knee on a foam roller, and lay your head on a support like a pillow or thick mat.
  • Reach your top hand below your ribs or straight out, so that it lays flat on top of your other hand.
  • Slowly rotate your top shoulder back around to the floor, opening up your chest in the process. Pull your ribs in the direction you're rotating.
  • Hold here for a few breaths, then return to the starting position. This counts as one rep.
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Foundation: Assisted Leg Lowering

This is a great foundational move for people who lack the flexibility to touch their toes, Eric and Ryan said.

  • Hook a band or belt around the bottom of one foot.
  • Lie flat on your back with your legs straight out.
  • Raise the leg with the band as high as you can without bending your knee or letting your lower back come off the ground.
  • Hold, then lift the other leg to the same height.
  • Lower the other leg. This counts as one rep.
Foundation: Bird Dog
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Foundation: Bird Dog

  • Get on all fours, with your knees under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Remember to keep abs engaged and keep your back flat.
  • Reach out with your right hand, and extend your left leg out behind you.
  • Round your back and head to connect your right elbow with your left leg under your body. This completes one rep.
Anti-Extension: Dead Bug Crunch
Laura Arndt

Anti-Extension: Dead Bug Crunch

  • Lie on the floor with knees bent at 90 degrees and your feet lifted off the floor.
  • Extend your arms up toward the ceiling.
  • Reach back with your right arm and out with your left leg. Keep your lower back flat on the floor.
  • Pause, then return to the starting position.
  • Repeat on the other side. This completes one rep.
Anti-Extension: Elbow Plank
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Anti-Extension: Elbow Plank

  • Get face down on the floor resting on your forearms and knees.
  • Push off the floor, raising up off your knees onto your toes and resting mainly on your elbows.
  • Contract your abdominals to keep yourself up and prevent your booty from sticking up. Keep your back flat and glutes tight.
  • Hold as long as you can. Aim for 20 to 30 seconds in the beginning, and work your way up to one minute as you get stronger.
Anti-Extension: Stir the Pot
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Anti-Extension: Stir the Pot

  • Begin in an elbow plank with your forearms resting on the top of a ball.
  • Keeping your core strong and your body still, use your arms to roll the ball in a small clockwise circle. This completes one rep.
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Anti-Rotation: Tall Kneeling Cable Belly Press

  • Kneel a foot away from a cable column of anchored band. Hold the handle of the band in both hands.
  • Keep your back as tall as possible without allowing your ribcage to flare. Squeeze your glutes.
  • Punch the handle straight out from your sternum.
  • Hold, resisting the weight pulling your arms back to your chest.
  • Slowly return to the starting point. This completes one rep.
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Anti-Rotation: Landmine Anti-Rotations

  • Set up by the landmine apparatus, or place a barbell in the corner of a room.
  • Grab the bar with both hands, fingers interlocked.
  • Place your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms straight out in front of your chest.
  • Let the bar travel from one side to the other without moving your lower body.
Anti-Lateral Flexion: Side Plank
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Anti-Lateral Flexion: Side Plank

  • Begin by lying on your left side. Bring your left elbow directly under your left shoulder. Place your top foot on top or in front of your bottom foot.
  • Push your hips upward to rise into side elbow plank, keeping your core and lower shoulder muscle engaged.
  • Hold while focusing on your breathing.
Anti-Lateral Flexion: One-Armed Farmer's Carry
POPSUGAR Photography | Tamara Pridgett

Anti-Lateral Flexion: One-Armed Farmer's Carry

  • Hold a 10-pound dumbbell in one hand; if this is too heavy or too light, feel free to adjust the weight. Make sure your bodyweight is evenly distributed on each foot, your spine is in a neutral position, and your shoulders are back and open.
  • Walk 10 steps forward without leaning toward or away from the weight, maintaining an upright posture.
  • Turn around and walk for 10 more steps.