The TOP 5 Core Exercises You Should Be Doing (without injuring your lower back)

Core exercises have been popularized in the last two decades. However, most of the exercises that are being done in the mainstream or shown on social media are not suitable for everyone.

The key elements here is to understand what the core is and how the lower back ties in to this. Lower back pain is a debilitating complication for many people and there are a few strategies that can help to mitigate further damage.

What is the core?

No, core does not only mean abs or abdominal muscles. Individuals with well defined abdominal muscles do not always have the strongest core as it is possible to have your abdominals show through proper nutrition but have low levels of strength in that department. The core is a set of muscles responsible for providing stability and support of the spine and pelvis. There are lots of ways to transform certain exercises into a ‘core’ exercise but without understanding what the real intentions are, there may be no real benefit.

Etiology of back pain:

We need to establish an understanding of low back pain and how it happens. There are numerous reasons regarding the starting point for lower back related disorders which can make strengthening the core delicate sometimes. Some mechanisms include:

-Tight spinal erectors (lower back/ spinal muscles).

-Tight hip flexors (and sometimes tight hamstrings)

-Reduced space among the vertebrae

-Disc Herniations and nerve disorders

-Ligament damage

-Pelvic disorders

The key thing here is to know if there is a lower back issue, what it revolves around and to determine if an exercise is appropriate.

So without further ado, here are the top 5 exercises that I use with my clients, especially those with a history of lower back pain.

These exercises reduce spinal flexion, embrace the deep abdominal muscles, provide co-contraction of the lower back muscles and abdominals and lastly, teach abdominal bracing through appropriate breathing. A few of these exercises also come from the research done by Professor Stuart McGill from The University of Waterloo. He’s also been called Dr. Spine for good reason.

Core Exercise # 1 – Planks (front, side and other variations)

Planks are not everyone’s favourite exercise and they do get overused fast but they do set a benchmark for core strength. If you can not hold a plank for 60 seconds, let alone 30 seconds, you have work to do. Standards are outlined for different age groups and I’ve worked with teenagers who could barely hold a plank for 60 seconds whereas they should be able to hold it for at least 2-3 minutes. What does this demonstrate? Postural dysfunction and a reduction in muscular endurance which should be much higher. Variations are helpful in progressing this if you find it difficult to hold a regular plank for a significant amount of time.

A picture containing person, young, ball, racket

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Side planks are a bonus here but most people can crank out a 30 second side plank on both sides. With increasing incidences of shoulder and hip issues, adjusting the side plank technique is necessary. The side plank also shows if there are any weaknesses or deviations in the spine or hip.

Core Exercise # 2 – Deadbugs

I like this exercise because it distinguishes where the effort is actually coming from and demonstrates proper breathing patterns. Without bracing your back against the ground and breathing into your stomach, this exercise immediately shows one’s weak points. The hip flexors play a role as well. The hip flexors should be excluded from this exercise but when someone has tight hip flexors, those are the first muscles to give out prior to the abdominals. Addressing flexibility in addition to practicing this one is strictly important.

dead bug exercise core

Core Exercise # 3 – Cat Vomits (or if you want a fancier version of the name: Isokinetic Closed Chain Transverse Abdominis Flexions; ICCTAF? Sounds about right.)

Tim Ferris popularized this through his book, ‘The 4-hour Body’ and it works well. It teaches deep abdominal bracing and accessing the transverse abdominis or that component of your abdominals that support the abdomen from the front to the back.

cat exercise core

Courtesy of

Core Exercise # 4 – Abdominal Hollows

A gymnastics exercise that teaches full body tension. Many of the feats done in gymnastics require this type of posture and without mastering this, many of the techniques in gymnastics and even calisthenics prove difficult. Elbows beside the ears, abs tight and legs around 40 degrees are key here. Try to keep your head relaxed too.

abdominal exercise core 6 pack

Core Exercise # 5 – Woodchoppers and rotational ab exercises

Woodchoppers done correctly provide great tension throughout the core. Rotational based exercises should be included in your routine from time to time as they open more doors. Rotational exercises can happen with different muscle groups but it is easiest to add them in for abdominal work as the mid back moves in this manner and rotational based sports (and activities… shoveling anyone?) call for power development through these patterns. The link above shows them from a low cable position, personally I prefer using a high cable position so you would start from the top but either variation works. The picture below demonstrates the exercise with a medicine ball but you can use a dumbbell or even a kettlebell.

woodchooper ab exercise cable machine

BONUS: Core Exercise # 6 – Bird Dogs

These can be challenging if there is lack of coordination, poor hip stability and balance.

bird dog core exercise

As much as I love these exercises, it is good to remind ourselves that these are by no means meant to fix lower back pain and should be included depending on the person’s needs in a properly structured exercise routine. If you’ve been dealing with lower back pain, it is crucial to address the root cause and find a practitioner that can help you without throwing on a few TENS machine electrodes on your back every session while claiming that’s all you need.

In addition to the exercises listed above, there are many other ways to strengthen your core.

If you’ve always wanted a stronger foundation, improved aesthetics with a functional basis and have injuries that are preventing you from doing so, you’ve come to the right place. Book a call here so a plan can be laid out for you.

Published by Shaneh-Abbas @ Myofiber

Registered Kinesiologist Personal Trainer Over 10 years of training experience in a variety of settings. Online trainer since 2017

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