Tone Your Abs, Save Your Back

3 core exercises to help build your 6-pack

Tone Your Abs, Save Your Back
Photo: Robin Kuniski

You are doing sit-ups and crunches to build that six-pack, but your back gets sore. Exercises like sit-ups and crunches cause flexion in the lower back, which can increase stress to back joints and discs. Especially for people with a history of lower back problems, these type of exercises can make back problems flare up. So how are you going to build those washboard abs without hurting your back?

Dr. Stuart McGill, renowned back specialist and professor at the University of Waterloo, recommends exercises based on strengthening the core in a neutral spine position. Lie on your back with one knee straight and the other knee bent with your foot flat on the floor. Notice the slight curve in your lower back and a space between your back and the floor. This is a neutral lumbar spine position. Note this as we progress through these exercises.


  • Cat-camel stretch: From hands and knees, round your back up toward the ceiling then lower back down toward the floor causing an arch in your lower back. Do 10 reps.


Tone Your Abs, Save Your Back

1.  Side Plank – Builds obliques

Get on your side with elbow under your shoulder and feet stacked on top of each other. Engage core, lifting hips off the ground, creating a straight line from head to toe. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Beginners can plank from elbows to knee. For an advanced version, start with a right side plank, rotate into a front plank, then rotate to a left side plank, each for a 30-second interval.

Tone Your Abs, Save Your Back

2. Curl-up – Targets rectus abdominis (the 6-pack)

Lie on the floor with one knee straight, one knee bent with foot flat on the floor, creating that neutral lumbar position in your back. Place both hands under the small arch in your back. Lift your chest up toward the ceiling while keeping your neck straight. Movement comes from your upper back, leaving your lower back in a safe, neutral position. Avoid the temptation of pushing your lower back into your hands because this will increase stress to the ligaments and discs in your spine.

Do 3 sets of 10-20 reps. Alternate the bent knee position halfway between each rep.

Tone Your Abs, Save Your Back

3. Bird Dog – Strengthens lower back & glutes

Dr. McGill’s research has shown this to be a great lower back and core exercise that decreases the load on the spine by 50 per cent compared to traditional Roman chair back extension exercises. Get down on hands and knees. Maintain a neutral lumbar spine position and engage your core. Lift one arm off the floor, straighten your elbow, lift the opposite leg and straighten your knee. This will create a straight line from fingers to toes. Hold this position for up to 7-8 seconds. Alternate sides.

Do 3 set of 6-10 reps.