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Back Pain: “I Get Back Pain Doing Crunches-Is Something Wrong?”

A lady emailed the clinic a few days ago and asked: “I get back pain when I’m doing sit-ups/ crunches. Am I doing something wrong, or should I avoid them?” Great question! I’m glad she asked this! During this current state of lockdown, many of us have turned to new exercises and workouts at home. Some us may not be used to these exercises or not using proper form. Additionally, there are some exercises you may want to avoid – including crunches to “get those abs”.

If you’ve ever done an ab workout and halfway through your back was feeling “off”, you’re not alone. For most of our patients it’s any ab exercise where you sit up on the tailbone that causes that feeling. Which is frustrating when you want to keep active but can’t because your back is in pain! 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 too.

What Makes Up Your “Core”?

When you do exercises for the core, you’re impacting all the other parts  too – including your lower back. Lower-back pain during exercise involving your core is usually a sign that your core is too weak. So, why does this happen? If your lower back is weak, the exercises you’re doing may just be asking too much of your back. Additionally, if you have a weakness anywhere else in your body, your lower back may overcompensate by taking on more than it can handle.

But pain during exercise doesn’t always mean your back or core is weak – pain in your back can also be a sign that the way you perform the exercise needs tweaking. For many abdominal exercises, a small misstep in how you perform them can put pressure on your back, as the spine gets irritated each time we move into a position that isn’t correct. One of the most common mistakes we see people make when performing these types of exercises is “hyper-extension” (this is when your hips aren’t tucked under causing a curve in the spine). If you can focus on keeping your tailbone (hips) tucked under, drawing your belly button towards the spine, this will help alleviate back pain and prevent it from getting worse.

Something Else That Might Help

Another helpful tip to keep in mind is to remember that the lower back needs to remain ‘glued’ to the floor for the majority of exercises involving the abdominals. When your back comes off the floor, it’s in a vulnerable position. So before you progress with any core exercise, make sure you can perform them with your back flat on the floor first – that way you’ll protect yourself from back pain and you’ll be strengthening your back at the same time. Not only a weak core, but muscle tightness too and fatigue can also lead to poor form and lower back pain.

If your glutes 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 mater what. Basically if it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it!

Here Are A Few Things To Try At Home

However, 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 back and core along with decreasing your chances of getting any injuries. To get familiar with the feeling of planting your lower back on the ground: 

  • Lay on your back with your legs in the air, squeezing a block or tennis ball between your legs. Try to flatten your lower back to the ground.
  • Slowly start to lower your legs, squeezing around the block/tennis ball (a slight bend of the knees is fine).
  • Just before you feel your lower back try to lift off the ground, squeeze the block, push the lower back towards the ground.
  • Then slowly raise your legs back up to the starting position.

To conclude – crunches aren’t bad for you when performed correctly. Just make sure you have a strong enough core without your back coming off the floor, until you progress to being able to perform them safely. I’ll be back again next week, until then, have a great week! 

Jen’s NEW Book!

Dr. Penrose just released her first ever book with a focus on running injuries, why they happen and how to prevent them to keep you running forever. Jen is an avid runner with nearly 20 years’ experience in treating and preventing running injuries. She also holds a board certification in orthopedic specialization, lending even further experience and clinical expertise. Jen has poured her heart and soul into this book hoping to bring a combination of her own passion for running and her clinical applications that have made her a leading physical therapist helping runners throughout our community.

Many of us have either increased our running or recently taken it up as a form of exercise during this time of social distancing. With that comes the risk of overuse injuries and other issues. Keep yourself moving and healthy by grabbing the book today! Topics include shin splints, Achilles tendonitis, hamstring injuries and more! Not only that but you’ll help a small business owner during this time from the comfort of your own home! Click the link below to grab it today!



This month Jen interviews Dr. Dominic Femiano, a top local surgeon right here in our backyard at Olympia Orthopedics. We see a lot of Dr. Femiano’s patients in the clinic and he was kind enough to take time this month and sit down to talk about tendon injuries. A majority of people will experience a tendon injury in their lifetime and Dr. Femiano helps us break down the kinds of injuries, how to best prevent them and even brought new research to the table for tendon injury treatments! Don’t miss this incredibly insightful discussion!


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Jennifer Penrose

Penrose Physical Therapy

"Leading Experts Helping People Become More Active and Mobile, Reduce Stress and Achieve Longevity… So They Can Enjoy Great Health For Years to Come!"

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