Keeping these muscles in good condition will help you fend off a bad back – just make sure you mix it up
Make the time
A strong core isn’t about having photogenic abs, you commonly use your core in everyday movements, including simple things like carrying the shopping or getting out of bed in the morning. Having a weak core can lead to a bad back, and an analysis of studies published between 1970 and 2011, found that “core stability exercise was better than general exercise for reducing pain” in chronic low back pain patients.
The big three
Dr Stuart McGill at the University of Waterloo in Canada recommends a “big three” set of exercises consisting of the curl-up, the bird dog and the side bridge.
Do it right
Gyms usually offer short core-strength classes. Even if you much prefer exercising at home, it is always a good idea to make sure you are doing exercises correctly to avoid injury. Apps such as Gixo and TrueBe can be helpful.
Don’t stop when pregnant
Pregnancy and childbirth can be particularly challenging for the core – studies suggest 50% of pregnant women will have low back pain, while 20% will have pelvic girdle pain. An analysis in 2013 reported that five of the seven studies examined showed significant reduction in intensity and presence of pain in pregnant women undergoing an appropriate core-strengthening programme.
Plank exercises – and other more dynamic movements – use more muscles at the front, side and back of your core. There are many different varieties, starting with the simple half plank – on your forearms and knees, rather than toes, maintaining a straight back. Longer is not always better: good form maintained for a small time is much better than bad form dragged out for minutes.
Dead bugs are one of the simplest and most effective core exercises. Lie on your back with your arms extended, knees bent at 90 degrees, calves parallel to the floor. Keeping your lower back in contact with the floor, extend and lower your left leg and bring your right arm up. Tap your heel to the floor, return to the start and repeat with the opposite arm and leg, making sure your lower back never arches.
Variety is key
Mixing it up is crucial, as is focusing on trying to keep your deepest abdominal muscles “engaged” – they are the ones you will feel when you cough.
McGill, S. M. (2003). Enhancing low-back health through stabilization exercise. ACE, 3.
Wang X-Q, Zheng J-J, Yu Z-W, Bi X, Lou S-J, Liu J, et al. (2012) A Meta-Analysis of Core Stability Exercise versus General Exercise for Chronic Low Back Pain. PLoS ONE 7(12): e52082. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0052082