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

LACEY (WA) – A lady emailed the clinic 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?

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 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 lower back 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 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 and irritate it. A common mistake people make when performing these types of exercises is “hyperextension” (bending backwards) causing a curve in the spine. If you can focus on keeping your tailbone tucked under, drawing your belly button towards the spine, this will help alleviate back pain and prevent it from getting worse.

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. 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 injury.

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.

I’ll be back again next week, until then, have a great week!

The author, Jennifer Penrose, is a Physical Therapist and owner of Penrose Physical Therapy. If you have any questions about back pain, you can call (360) 456-1444 or email

P.S. If you want to hear more healthy tips from Dr. Penrose, tune into her monthly podcast “Stay Healthy South Sound” on iTunes, Google Play or Spotify.


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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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