Abdominal exercises when you have back pain: Yoga for Abs

abdominal strengthening
If you have back pain, you have probably heard that you have to strengthen your abdominal muscles. Strong abs help stabilize the trunk and spine during all your movements and help maintain a good posture. They also prevent the back muscles from doing overwork. Weak abdominals are quite likely to lead to back pain in the long term. So if you want to alleviate back pain or prevent it, you are in the right place!

Keeping the abdominals strong may not be so simple if you are suffering from back pain and all the exercises you find are difficult, boring, or give you even more back pain! I am in the process of making a series of “yoga for abs” videos that will be available in a few months. They will not only focus on strengthening core muscles but also include relaxation exercises, stretches and breath awareness. They will be just right for you if you want to strengthen your core in a safe way, have some variety and feel more relaxed!

Meanwhile, here are some abdominal exercises that you can start with. These ones I will not include in the video even though they are appropriate and safe for people with back pain. I am not including them because people tend to find the coordination of arm, leg and back movement confusing. And I agree: it is like rubbing your belly and patting your head. However, it is a very good and efficient exercise so if you like a challenge, this exercise is for you. Don’t worry if you can’t master it at once; our brain needs time to make some movements more automatic before new movements can be added.

Finally, as always, please don’t do this exercise when it hurts. If you have had a herniated disc, this exercise will only be appropriate when you have been pain-free for a few months.

Stage 1
Lie on your back on a mat or carpet, with the legs bent and feet on the floor. If your neck is tight and your chin is pointing up, please use a cushion under your head. Notice that your lower back is slightly curved and not flat on the floor. With each exhalation, use the abdominal muscles to press the lower back on the floor. Don’t do this movement by pressing more weight on the feet but focus on the abdominal work to make the pelvic tilt happen. Imagine you have to crush something underneath your lower back. Every time you inhale you return to the starting position and relax the abdomen.


Stage 2
Bring the left leg, still bent, towards the chest while the right foot stays on the mat or (as on the picture and a more advanced version) extend the right leg on the mat. Together with the exhalation and the pelvic tilt, slowly swap the position of the legs, so that the left leg is near the chest and the right foot on the mat. With every inhalation you bring the back to neutral and don’t move the legs. So the leg movements and pressing the lower back on the floor only occur with every exhalation. Repeat several times, slowly, and concentrating on contracting the abs every time you exhale and releasing them completely when you inhale.

abdominal strengthening 2

Stage 3
Once you have become skilled at combining the pelvic tilt together with the leg movement, you are ready to add the arms. Bring one arm straight to the ceiling while the other is next to you ear (alternative: one arm up to the ceiling and the other next to the body if tight shoulders don’t allow you to bring the arm next to your head). You are working with opposite leg to arm: while the right knee is near the chest, the left arm points at the ceiling and vice versa. So, when you exhale, press the lower back on the floor and swap the position of arms and legs. When you inhale, relax the abdomen as before. Move the arms and legs slowly as if you have to move them through treacle, while pressing the lower back on the floor to crush whatever-it-is (I like to imagine berries) strongly. Repeat for as many times as appropriate for you today.

I adapted this exercise from the excellent book “Walk Yourself Well” by physical therapist Sherry Brourman. You can find more abdominal exercises in this previous blog.



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