Lower Back Pain After Sit Ups: Reasons and Cure

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Why Does My Lower Back Hurt after doing Sit-Ups?

We’ve all been there. You’ve just finished a killer workout including abdominal exercises, and then you feel a twinge in your lower back.

It’s a common complaint I hear, and it’s often linked to one particular exercise: traditional sit-ups. But why does this seemingly simple exercise cause such discomfort? Let’s dive in.

Sit ups and back pain - they often come together
Sit ups and back pain - they often come together

Lower back pain after sit ups - the main reasons

  1. Hip Flexor Activation: These “core exercises” like sit ups or crunches heavily involve the hip flexors, which attach to the lower spine. When these muscles are overworked, they can pull on the lower spine, leading to low back pain.

  2. Poor Form: Incorrect form, such as pulling on the neck or rounding the back, can strain the back muscles and spine.

  3. Spinal Flexion: Sit-ups and crunches involve a high degree of spinal flexion, which can put excessive pressure on the intervertebral discs and lead to discomfort or injury.

  4. Overemphasis on a Single Muscle Group: Sit-ups and crunches primarily target the rectus abdominis (the “six-pack” muscle). Overworking this muscle while neglecting others can lead to imbalances and strain on the lower back.

  5. Lack of Core Stability: These exercises do not effectively train the core for stability. A weak core can lead to poor posture and increased strain on the back.

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The Role of Hip Flexors in Sit-Ups

The psoas major, often simply referred to as the psoas, is one of the key muscles that make up the hip flexor group. The other primary hip flexor is the iliacus muscle.

Together, they are often referred to as the iliopsoas. These muscles are critical for movements that involve lifting the knee towards the body, which is a primary movement in sit-ups.

During a sit-up, the hip flexors, including the psoas, contract to pull the torso towards the thighs. This action is what allows you to “sit up” from a lying position.

Because of this, the hip flexors are heavily engaged during sit-ups, and if they are weak or tight, they can become strained.

Moreover, the psoas major attaches to the lower back (lumbar spine). When it contracts, it pulls on the spine.

If the abdominal muscles (the intended target of sit-ups) are not strong enough to counteract this force, the lower back can become compressed.

This compression can lead to discomfort or pain in the lower back.

In addition, if the hip flexors are disproportionately strong compared to the abdominal muscles, they can dominate the movement during a sit-up. This can lead to an over-reliance on these muscles, potentially causing them to become overworked and tight. As a result these muscles stop functioning properly which can also contribute to lower back pain.

Therefore, it’s important to gain core strength to keep the core strong and balanced. Additionally, exercises must be performed correctly, to prevent overuse or strain of the hip flexors and potential back pain.

Back pain after sit ups is often caused by the psoas and iliacus muscles.
Back pain after sit ups is often caused by the psoas and iliacus muscles.

The Impact of Spinal Flexion and Lumbar Pressure

Sit-ups also involve a high degree of spinal flexion. This means that your spine is bending forward, compressing the front part of your spinal discs. Over time, this pressure can lead to discomfort or even injury.

Moreover, the action of pressing your lumbar spine against the floor can cause discomfort. I’ve seen many athletes wince in pain as their lower back presses against a hard gym floor during a sit-up.

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Your Core And How It Relates To Low Back Pain

The core is not just about having a six-pack. It’s a complex group of muscles that work together to stabilize your body and support your spine.

Understanding Core Strength and Stability

Strong and stable core muscles are essential for preventing back pain.

When your core is weak, other muscles, like the hip flexors we talked about earlier, have to pick up the slack.

This can lead to overuse, strain, and ultimately, pain.

The Consequences of Muscle Imbalances

Overworking certain muscles while neglecting others can lead to imbalances.

In the case of sit-ups, you’re primarily working your rectus abdominis, the “six-pack” muscle. But the core is much more than just this one muscle.

It’s a team, and when one player is doing all the work, the whole team suffers.

There are better ways to train your abs than sit ups and crunches.
There are better ways to train your abs than sit ups and crunches.

Exercises to do instead of sit-ups

So, if sit-ups can cause back pain, what should you do instead? Here are some alternatives that can effectively train your core while reducing the risk of back pain.

The Benefits of Planks and Side Planks

Planks and side planks are fantastic exercises for core stability. They maintain a neutral spine and engage all the muscles of the core, not just the rectus abdominis.

In fact, you should not rely on common go to exercises like sit ups or crunches for your ab workout.

By training your entire core you will also work your abs together with all nearby muscle groups and build essential core strength.

the forearm plank
The forearm plank for a strong core

Other Recommended Exercises for Core Strength

Other exercises, like glute bridges, goblet squats or kettlebell swings can also strengthen the core without causing back pain.

These exercises build strength and also focus on stability and endurance, which are key for a strong, healthy core.

Build a strong core with kettlebell swings
Build a strong core with kettlebell swings

What can I do to help my back pain?

If you’re already experiencing back pain, here are some strategies that can help.

Keep Moving

First, you should exclude any more serious issues. When necessary, consult your doctor.

Once you are absolutely sure that the reason for your lower back pain is a result of your previous exercise involving sit ups, you might consider doing a simple walk.

Keep moving – this will relieve any pain quite fast. Just lying around will usually not do the trick.

The Role of Stretching and Rest

Gentle stretching, a massage to release muscle tightness and adequate rest can also aid in recovery and prevent further strain on the back.

You might also consider an ice bath to treat your back.

Remember, your body needs time to heal and adapt to the demands you’re placing on it.

Watch this excellent video on which stretches will help your back:

Should You Workout If Your Back Hurts?

This is a question I get asked a lot. The answer is, it depends.

Listening to Your Body

First and foremost, listen to your body. If an exercise causes pain, stop. It’s better to miss one workout than to push through the pain and cause a more serious injury.

Consulting with Health Professionals

If your back pain persists or worsens, it’s important to seek help from a health professional. They can provide a proper diagnosis and treatment plan to get you back to your workouts safely.

Remember, fitness is a journey, not a destination.

It’s about finding what works for you and adapting along the way. So, if sit-ups are causing you pain, try some of the alternatives I’ve suggested. Your back will thank you!

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