You can have toned abs without hurting your lower back.
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Lower back pain and muscular abs aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. For people with lower back pain, core-strengthening exercise can be beneficial. A study published in 1997 in the academic journal вЂњMedicine and Science in Sports and ExerciseвЂќ indexed the exercises that maximally worked the abdominal muscles while minimally agitating the lumbar spine. Curl-ups and leg raises both made the list. In addition, an exercise called planking, designed to work the abs while not overly stressing the lower back, also comes recommended by fitness professionals.
In the вЂњMedicine and Science in Sports and ExerciseвЂќ study, curl-ups were effective at challenging abdominal muscles without stressing the lower back. Start by lying on your back. Pull one of your heels toward your butt so that your leg is bent at the knee. Tighten your abs, while continuing to breathe, and curl your torso toward your legs. Hold the "up" position through a few deep breaths, before slowly uncurling. Rest for a moment before repeating with your other leg.
MensHealth.com offers instructions for a вЂњdynamic cross-knee curl-up,вЂќ which will go easy on your lumbar spine. From lying on your back, lift your feet and bend at the waist and the knees, so that your body makes a "Z" shape. Pull your arms up and touch the sides of your face with your hands. Curl up and to the side, almost touching each knee with the opposite elbow and then alternating.
The вЂњMedicine and Science in Sports and ExerciseвЂќ study also recommends a hanging leg raise as a good ab exercise that is relatively easy on your back. Start by hanging from a chin-up bar with your arms straight. Slowly bring your legs out in front of you so that they become perpendicular to the ground, and then slowly return them to the vertical position. For a variation on the straight-leg raise, bend at the knees before lifting your legs up. This reduces the resistance on your abs, and can allow for more repetitions.
Another exercise that tones abdominal muscles without significantly agitating the spine is planking. According to the American Council on Exercise, by strengthening your proximal abdominal muscles, planking also helps ease back pain while it tones your abs. Start in pushup position, resting on your elbows and your toes. Make sure your elbows are directly below your shoulders, your back is straight and your hips are parallel with the ground. Tighten your abs and contract your thigh muscles. Hold this position for 20 to 30 seconds. ACE recommends four to six repetitions with a one-minute rest between each.
There are some additional planking variations that strengthen the abs without too much lower back stress. From the initial plank position, lift yourself up onto your palms one by one so that your arms are straight and perpendicular to the ground. This is the high plank. From the high plank position, lift up one of your legs and hold it for five seconds. Rest, and repeat the lift with your other leg. Do three to four repetitions to start.