Core Exercises Suitable For Bad Backs

Ok so you have back pain and everything you try seems to make it worse. Google tells you to strengthen your core but all the “traditional” core exercises seem to be doing more harm than good. How on earth are you supposed to get a banging 6 pack if you can’t do any core exercises to make ’em pop? How can you strengthen your core if all the exercises you try cause you pain? Not to worry, this blog post is about to get you some fire abs and stop you from groaning like you’re 80 years old every time you try to get up.

Aside from looking fab at the beach, there are other benefits to exercising your abs – number one being having a strong core – giving your spine the support it needs. With this, your likelihood of back pain, or the severity of back pain is greatly reduced, as well as a decreased chance of injury to the back. Your posture will also be greatly improved, thus putting less strain on your body and muscles in every day life.

I previously trained a couple of athletes that we’re both suffering/recovering from back injuries and the following exercises were my go-to’s to get them back in top condition. These exercises have been tried and tested not only by me, but by professionals all around the world to help people just like you.  I even use them sometimes when I want to go back to basics but still get a killer core workout in.

But before I get to the exercises, let me give you a little bit of core anatomy so you can better understand what it is you’re trying to strengthen in the first place. There are 4 muscles that make up the abdominals:

  • External Abdominal Oblique – most important abdominal muscle. Located towards the front and side of abdomen. Responsible for ipsilateral (same side of body) and contralateral (opposite side of body) movement of trunk.
  • Internal Abdominal Oblique – lies deep to the External Abdominal Oblique and is responsible for ipsilateral flexion and rotation of the trunk.
  • Transverse Abdominis – the deepest of the abdominal muscles. Narrows and flattens the abdomen when flexed and stabilizes the lumbar spine (lower back).
  • Rectus Abdominis (otherwise known as the 6 pack) – the most important postural muscle. Results in posterior pelvic tilt when contracted.


Picture from here.

As you can probably imagine, it is important to train each of these 4 groups of muscles in order to maintain a balanced group of core muscles. The following exercises – if all performed regularly – do a good job at hitting all the desired groups.


Pelvic Tilt

Lying on your back, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground. Naturally your lower spine will not be touching the ground in this position. The aim of this exercises is to flex your abdominal muscles in order to push your lower spine down to touch the ground, almost as if someone is pulling your lower back with a string to pull you into the ground. Hold this position for 3-4 seconds and then release – that is one repetition. Repeat 10-15x for 2-3 sets.

Click for a short video demonstration: pelvic tilt

Reverse Crunches

Starting in the same position as the Pelvic Tilt exercise, contract your abdominals in order to bring your knees up to your chest. Continue to contract until your lower back is lifted off the ground, and your knees are closer to your head. Keeping the core tight, slowly lower your lower back to the ground, followed by your feet to the ground. For an extra challenge, straighten your legs out at the bottom of the exercise before bringing your knees back up to your head. Repeat 10-15x for 2-3 sets.

Click for a short video demonstration: reverse crunches

Knee Up Crunches/Partial Crunches

A little different that the traditional crunch because your feet are lifted off the ground – this helps take pressure off of your lower back. With your knees bent and your feet off the ground, put your hands behind your head and contract your core muscles. With this exercise, aim to get your shoulder blades clean off the ground (don’t pull on your head – that’s cheating and will also hurt your neck!). Aim to get your chest as close to your knees as possible, without bringing your knees closer to you (ya I see you thinking you can cheat). Squeeze hard at the top of the movement, and slowly lower your shoulders back down. Repeat 12-15x for 3-4 sets.

Click for a short video demonstration: knee up crunches

Straight Leg-Ups

This exercise is similar to the reverse crunch in that you’er contracting your abdominals in order to lift your lower back off the ground, however with this one, instead of further contracting to get your knees to your head, you will propel your feet/legs straight up in the air. Slowly lower yourself back down and repeat. This exercise is quite challenging so I would recommend taking this one slow, or waiting until your core strength has increased a little bit! Do 8-10 reps, 3-4 times.

Click for a short video demonstration: straight leg ups

Dead Bugs

This exercise is so underrated. Looks relatively easy but can be challenging when performed correctly. Lay on your back, with your arms and legs in the air. Lower one leg and the opposite arm to the ground, and then bring back to “centre”, repeat with the other leg/opposite arm. The goal of this is to keep your torso stable and level on the ground as the movement is being initiated, as well as using it to help move your arms and legs. At first the coordination of this exercise may be challenging, so start off by only moving your legs one at a time and slowly incorporate your arms. Repeat 20x (10/side), 3-4 times.

Click for a short video demonstration: dead bugs

Bird Dogs

Bird Dogs are essentially the same as the Dead Bug, except you’re on your hands and knees instead of on your back. Again, raise the opposite arm and leg in the air and slowly lower back down, and repeat with the other arm/opposite leg. Try and keep your back level and tight –  a good way to help you do this is to picture that you have a jug of water on your back and you can’t let it spill as you move. Repeat 20x (10/side), 3-4 times.

Click for a short video demonstration: bird dogs

Glute Bridges

Lay on your back, bend your knees, and plant your feet flat on the ground with your toes pointed slightly outwards. Push through your heels and contract your gluteal muscles, as well as your core muscles to propel your hips up towards the ceiling. You should feel as though your tailbone is being tucked under your torso at the top of the movement. Slowly lower your hips back down and repeat. 15-20 reps, 3-4 times should get you good!

Click for a short video demonstration: glute bridges

Glute Bridge Hold

This is the exact same as the Glute Bridge except instead of doing reps, you just hold the movement at the top (hips off the ground). Keep tight throughout your core and glute muscles, after 30 seconds you’ll be burning. Repeat 2-4 times.

Click for a short video demonstration: glute bridge hold


For this exercise you will start in a low plank position (elbows on ground). Start by engaging your core, then bring one knee up to the side, towards your elbow and contract your obliques (side abs). Bring your foot back down to the ground, then bring the other knee up on to the other elbow. This movement is a killer for your entire torso, as well as your shoulders. Remember to stay tight throughout your whole body, and try not to let your hips sag or your butt come up too high. This movement requires a bit of flexibility in the hips so make sure you’re feeling limber before attempting this exercise! Start by trying 10 reps in total (5/side) and see how that goes. Slowly work up to more reps.

Click for a short video demonstration: froggies

Wall Sit

I’m sure when you hear the words “Wall Sit” you have horrendous flashbacks to gym class – but there’s a reason they’re so popular. They use such a wide variety of muscles not only in the core, but  the legs and bum too which is why it makes for such an amazing exercise. Find yourself a wall and place your back against it. Slide yourself down until your knees and hips are at a 90 degree angle. Push through the centre of your foot and keep all your muscles tight and you’ll feel the burn in no time. 30 seconds is a good place to start with this exercise. I would recommend just holding it as long as you can for a couple of times – eventually you’ll be able to hold it for longer.

Modified Plank

Similar to a regular plank, you will start with your elbows on the ground, core tight and back straight. However, given that regular planks can put a lot of stress on the lower back if performed incorrectly this Modified Plank places one knee on the ground to limit how much the lower back can sag. This way, it allows you to hold a plank without risking stress to your back. Hold for as long as you can (without losing form), and repeat a couple of times. Eventually, like the Wall Sit, you will be able to hold it for longer.

Click for a short video demonstration: modified plank

Mountain Climbers

And last but not least, something to get your heart rate up! Place hands and feet on the ground with your back straight (as if you’re in a high plank position). Bring one knee up to your chest, then quickly switch it for the other knee – it should almost look like you’re running on the spot with your hands on the ground. Try and keep your bum as low as possible while performing this as this allows your core to engage more. This is a perfect full body exercise too; it works your shoulders, legs, and core. Repeat as many reps as you can in 30 seconds, 3-4 times.

Click for a short video demonstration: mountain climbers

Designing your workout

There are a few ways that you can put together a little workout with these exercises that can really kick your butt (or rather, your core).

The best way I’ve found is to do lots of supersets with a few different exercises. For example, I would do a 30 second wall sit, 20 reverse crunches, and 20 dead bugs without a rest (so, a superset), rest for 30 seconds to 1 minute and then repeat 3-4 times. Then I will pick my next 3 exercises to superset. The shorter you keep the breaks in between, or the more exercises you choose to superset, the more of a burn you will feel!

Another way you can blast your core is to design a tabata circuit.

Tabata, what’s that?

Basically, you exercise for a certain amount of time (e.g. 40 seconds) followed by a short rest period (e.g. 20 seconds). After that, you move onto the next exercise for x amount of seconds, rest again, and repeat. Traditionally there are 8 rounds in a tabata style workout, so pick 8 exercises and do those in that fashion.

Two rounds of tabata totals 16 exercises, which is less than 20 minutes – then you’re done! For an extra challenge, try shortening your rest time. You can find apps that help you time your tabata workouts so you’re not worried about watching the clock all the time – the app I use for these is just called “tabata” and it lets you customize your own workouts!

To prevent doing tons of repetitions of these exercises once these get too easy, try adding weight into them where possible. This can be with a medicine ball, dumbbells, or kettle bells.

Here’s a little sample of a workout I’ve been loving incorporating into my weekly routine… The first time I tried this I couldn’t laugh properly for the next couple of days… So be warned!

Superset #1: 3×15
Reverse Crunches
Straight Leg Ups
Partial Crunches

Superset #2: 3×20
Dead Bugs

Superset #3: 3×30 seconds
Wall Sit
Modified Plank
Mountain Climbers

Doesn’t look like much, but I promise you will feel the burn.
Give it a try and let me know how you like it!

Is there anything else fitness related that you would like to learn about? Let me know!

Until next time