Submitted by Dr. Jennifer Penrose of Penrose & Associates Physical Therapy

A lady emailed Penrose & Associates Physical Therapy in Lacey a few days ago asking: “I get back pain when I’m doing sit-ups/crunches. Am I doing something wrong?” Great question! I’m glad she asked me this because this time of year, as people being to get more active for summer vacations, we see a big rise in the number of people suffering from back pain. And even though crunches are one of the most common go-to exercises to get your “abs summer ready,” are they really that effective? And more importantly, can this exercise cause back pain?

penrose physical therapy lacey back pain
Photo courtesy: Penrose & Associates Physical Therapy

If you’ve ever tried to do an ab workout and realized half way through that your back is feeling things it shouldn’t be feeling, you’re not alone. For me (and most of our patients) it’s any “ab” exercise that asks me to sit up on my tailbone that causes a slight twinge in my back.

To understand why this happens, you first have to remember that the abs and lower back are part of your core. While we often think of our core as being our abs – the abs are only one part of the equation. Your core is made up of a group of muscles that work together to support the body. It wraps around the entire body, and includes muscles that are in your lower back & hips too.

When you do any exercises for the core, you’re including your lower back. Lower-back pain during any exercise involving your core is usually a sign that your core is too weak to do that exercise. So, why does this happen? Well, if your core isn’t strong enough you may just be asking too much of your back, causing the muscles to strain. Likewise, if you have a weakness anywhere else in your body, your lower back may overcompensate.

But pain during exercise doesn’t always mean your core is weak – pain in your back can also be a sign that the way you perform the exercise needs adjusting. For many abdominal exercises, a small misstep in how you perform them can put pressure on your back and irritate it.

penrose physical therapy lacey plank
Photo courtesy: Penrose & Associates Physical Therapy

If your gluteus maximus and hips are really tight, chances are you’ll feel the strain in your back during your daily activities, not just exercise. As well as tightness, when you’re tired, your muscles stop functioning properly and your body will look for nearby muscle groups to compensate – most of the time the lower back and hips being the ones that take the strain!

So, what can you do to stop back pain getting in the way? First off, stop doing any movements that cause you pain. Any pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop doing what you’re doing no matter what. The good news is that there are plenty of simple ways you can strengthen your core without straining your back. Exercises like dead bugs, glute bridges and planks are all great examples of movements that will help strengthen your core along with decreasing your chances of injury.

To conclude, crunches aren’t bad for you when performed correctly. Just make sure you have a strong enough core. And honestly if it you keep trying and it irritates your back there are so many other better options. Contact us if you want to learn what those are.

The author, Dr. Jennifer Penrose, is a Physical Therapist and owner of Penrose Physical Therapy. We have free back pain tips reports on the Penrose Physical Therapy website. We are located about 3.7 miles from Jubilee in the Harborstone Credit Union building at 1445 Galaxy Drive NE in Lacey.  We are happy to help in any way 360.456.1444.

Dr. Penrose hosts the “Stay Healthy Southsound Podcast” tune in here. Episode 25 is called, “All About Solving Back Pain.” You don’t want to miss it!

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