Strengthen Your Core Without Wrecking Your Back

By , Dr. Thomas J. Kleeman, MD
The muscles of your core work together to support posture, protect the spine and improve agility, balance and power, making core strength training an important part of any fitness routine. Unfortunately, for many people, core strength training and back pain or discomfort go hand in hand. Often resulting from weak muscles and poor form, back pain is no reason to avoid core strength training, though. In fact, properly performed core exercises can simultaneously help protect your back and strengthen the abs at the same time.

Decrease the probability of injury with these back-friendly core strength exercises. 

The Bird Dog
Start on your hands and knees. With your stomach muscles tightened, lift and extend one leg behind you, keeping your hips level. Hold for 5 seconds, then switch to the other leg. Repeat 8 to 12 times for each leg, lengthening the time you hold each lift as you go. To take the move to the next level, try lifting and extending your opposite arm for each repetition. This exercise is an excellent way to learn how to stabilize the lower back during movement of the arms and legs. While doing this exercise, be careful not to let the lower back muscles sag.

Lie on your back with knees bent and your feet flat on the floor under your knees. Push your heels into the floor, squeeze your buttocks and lift your hips off the floor until your shoulders, hips and knees are in a straight line. Hold for 5-10 seconds, and then slowly lower hips to the floor and rest for 5-10 seconds. Repeat the exercise 8 to 10 times. It is important to tighten your abdominal muscles throughout the lift to avoid arching your lower back.

Modified Plank
Lie on your stomach to start. Raise yourself up so that you're resting on your forearms and your knees. In this posture, your head and neck align with your back, with your shoulders lining up directly above the elbows. Tighten your abdominal muscles and hold for 15-30 seconds. Lower your body to the floor and rest for 5-10 seconds. Repeat 5 times.

Side Plank
The side plank pose challenges stability and improves core strength by working the muscles along the side of the body. Begin by lying on your left side and raising yourself onto your left forearm. Place your left shoulder directly above your left elbow, keeping your shoulders, hips and knees in alignment. Rest your right arm along the side of your body. Tighten your abdominal muscles and hold for 15 seconds. Lower and rest for 10 seconds before repeating on the left side. Once complete, repeat on your right side, rest and then repeat a second time on the right side.

Perform these moves 2-3 times a week and you will begin to see results in both your core and back strength in just a few short weeks.

About the Author
Dr. Thomas J. Kleeman, MD, is nationally-renowned orthopedic surgeon and founder of the New Hampshire Neurospine Institute. With the help of his wife Anne, he has become dedicated to the use of exercise and good nutrition as a means of maintaining quality of life during the aging process.  Now 66, he is a cancer survivor who found the benefits of exercise and nutrition instrumental in his own recovery.  Along with his wife Anne, a registered nurse and certified fitness professional, he has launched MDfitness: The Doctor's Workout on DVD—an easy to follow exercise program designed for people over 40, along with EatandBeFit, a nutrition and fitness blog.