Now that you know which exercises to avoid, we can turn to the exercises that will strengthen your back AND tone your abs:
1. Put Down the Fork. Sorry, but for most people the best way to benefit your back is to lose weight. Excess weight; especially in the stomach area is the number one cause of back pain. I know it is not easy, but studies show that losing even 5 pounds can reduce stress on the back.
2. Aerobics: Researchers are not sure why, but any form of aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease back pain. It can be walking, running, spinning, dancing etc. If even walking hurts, try swimming or a recumbent bike; most people can do these without pain.
3. Bird Dog: Start on hands and knees, hands right under the shoulders, knees under the hips. Pull your shoulder blades down your back, and find neutral spine; this means you will maintain the normal arch of YOUR back. Place a real or imaginary stick across your back and brace your abdominals and lower back by doing a slight contraction, but do not let the stick move. Stay balanced and reach a straight arm forward until the arm is parallel to the ground. The thumb is pointed up. Keep the contraction in the abs and lower back, and hold for 10 seconds, then switch arms. Recenter and straighten one leg, keeping it in line with the hip, then lift the leg until it is parallel to the ground.
This may sound easy, but doing it with perfect form is actually very challenging. Most people will lose the stick. This trains the abs and back to work together, and will give you greater core stability (and tighter abs). Once you can do this with PERFECT form, progress to lifting the opposite arm and leg at the same time.
Do not try to progress too soon; doing these exercises incorrectly will only solidify imbalances. Gradually increase the repetitions until you can do 12 on each side.
4. Plank: This is one of the most effective abdominal exercises, and it is also great for your lower back. Start on your knees with your forearms on the ground and your elbows directly below your shoulders. Walk your knees back bringing your hips closer to the ground until you feel the abdominals start to work. Keep your spine in neutral, neck relaxed and in line with the spine, and your forehead pointed at the floor. Hold for 10 seconds.
Once you can maintain this in perfect form, you can advance to straight legs with your toes on the ground. Work up to 12 repetitions.
I have added this as a demo of what NOT to do: Notice how his head is dropped and his back is arched.
These exercises may look easy, but doing them with perfect form is actually very difficult. I will add progressions in future posts, but it is essential not to increase the difficulty until you can perform the exercise flawlessly.
Next post; three more essential ab exercises.