Do you experience back pain during core exercise? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. There’s nothing worse than trying to do the right thing and strengthen the core, only to be stopped by dreaded back pain. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back…

Keep reading to discover why your back might hurt during core exercise and what can be done to fix it.

*Disclaimer: If you have an existing back injury, please consult a physiotherapist before completing these exercises.

What exactly is the core?

This answer may surprise you. Your core is not simply made up of your rectus abdominals, that is, the defining feature of that (one day) chiselled six pack. Instead, your core encompasses a number of muscles that work together to move, support and stabilise the spine. Put simply, your core comprises musculature starting from the bottom of your rib cage up to your mid-thigh.

Back pain during core work explained  

Ok, let’s get to the nitty gritty. Are you focused? Good. Back pain during core work is not primarily caused by a weakness in your core. Yep, you read that right. Repeating the same core strengthening exercises won’t counteract the problem, and may even make it worse. Instead, your persistent back pain is most likely caused by tight, overactive hip flexors.

I’m sure your wondering why your hip flexors are overactive. During movement, our body prioritises stability through the spine. Humans are masters of compensation. When the core is not strong enough, nor is it engaged correctly during core work, the body will preference musculature which ensures the highest level of spinal stability. In the case of many core exercises, the body will rely on the hip flexors to help produce movement.

In particular, your body depends on the strongest of the three hip flexors, the psoas major, to facilitate spinal stability. Put simply, your psoas major (shown in the image to the left) attaches from the vertebrae in your lower back and extends down to the top of your femur. If this muscle is over active during core exercise, it is going to pull on the vertebrae, thereby causing lower back pain.

Below I have outlined two ways to take the hip flexors out of action during core work. Not only will this help to eliminate lower back pain, it will also work to increase core engagement.

 Method #1: Preference core work that does not involve hip flexion

Performing core work in a position where the hips are flexed can cause over use of the psoas major. Such exercises include crunches, sit-ups and captain chair raises. To prevent psoas major dominance during core work, preference exercises where the hips are in an extended position. The cable oblique twist shown below exemplifies an exercise in which the hips are extended, thereby limiting hip flexor contribution.


Method #2: Preference core work that utilises reciprocal inhibition of the hip flexors

Reciprocal inhibition is a term used to describe the mechanics of muscle contraction and relaxation. For a muscle to contract, the muscle on the opposing side of the joint is required to relax. This principle can be used to prevent psoas major dominance during core work. This is achieved by contracting the glutes and hamstrings to cause the opposing muscle, the psoas major, to relax.

In the below example, I am performing a typical crunch with my legs raised off the ground. This enables me to squeeze my glutes and hamstrings, thereby causing hip flexor relaxation. This significantly helps to isolate the core during the crunching motion.