how to get a six pack without hurting your back

How to train abs, the best exercises and the worst in your way to a six pack

So you’re here because you decided you want to work your abs. We wrote this article because so much of the information found on the internet about this subject is outdated or just plain wrong. Some of the most common ab exercises are even dangerous and should be avoided completely.

This guide will teach you everything you need to know to train your abs right and safely.



Don’t do hundreds of crunches!

The first thing anyone who wants to train abs does is to start doing dozens, or even hundreds of crunches. Problem is, this is not the best method to train the abs, it is not very effective, it only works the outer ab muscle–the rectus abdominis, but not the inner core muscles. The worse of all - it might even be dangerous for your spine.


But I want a six-pack!

An important fact that many people don’t know is that having a six-pack is more an issue of a diet than exercise. Basically, almost everyone has a six-pack, it is usually hidden by some layer of belly fat.

This is a common fitness myth called spot reduction – The belief that training a specific muscle will lead to fat loss in that area of the body. And it doesn’t work this way. Working a certain muscle might make the muscle stronger, and bigger. But no matter how much you’ll work your abs, you will not get a flat tummy or a six-pack, you have to lose fat overall. Because the body draws energy from the fat deposits in the entire body, and not just in around the area being worked. Fat-loss is mostly about diet and maintaining a caloric deficit.


Why abs are important?

The role of your abs is to stabilize your spine and torso. Everything you do – walk, sit, stand, run, lift and bend involves your abs. Your abs work virtually all the time! Having stronger abs will give you a better posture making you look leaner and taller. It will make you stronger overall, increasing your performance on other exercises. Since producing strength on the extremities (arms and legs) requires a stable core.


Lower back pain

So, here is the real reason you should strengthen your abs. Almost everyone has suffered and occasionally suffering from lower back pain. If you haven’t had it yet, that’s because you probably only at your 20s. Just give it a few years, and you’ll know what we’re talking about.

One reason so many of us have lower back trouble is weak abs (and glutes, but this is for another article). The abs responsible for stabilizing the spine, having a sedentary lifestyle makes them weak causing your back tendons and spinal discs to pick up a lot of the pressure.


The new approach to ab training

Stuart McGill is back mechanics expert who’s been researching the right way to train the core for decades. McGill offers a different approach to look at your abs purpose. The muscles of the core, abs, and back have not designed to bend back and forth. Instead, they have been designed to keep your core and spine stable as you move.

Therefore, training the abs is training their ability to keep the spine still and prevent it from bending under forces. This is called “core stiffness”, and to train it, you need to do isometric exercises.

If you are lifting weights, this is especially important. In many exercises, you must have a stiff core. If you’re doing deadlifts, squats or even shoulder presses, you have to keep your spine neutral despite the movement and the heavyweight on your back, failure to do so might result in back pain or a severe spine injury.



The worst exercises

So how do you train core stiffness? Let’s start with the exercises you definitely don’t want to do.

Remember, What you want to avoid is bending or rotation, which makes your spine the most vulnerable, and you definitely don’t want to do it with extra weight.


Sit-ups and crunches

We already talked before about the crunches and the sit-ups. In fact, McGill research has prompted the U.S. military to drop the sit-up from their training. As we said, bending the torso repeatedly might damage your spine and back.

Another big drawback is that crunches only train the outer ab muscle – the rectus abdominis, this is good to have a six pack, but if you looking to get stronger healthier, avoid injuries and have better posture and breathing you need to train the inner core muscles. Like the transverse abdominis and internal obliques.


Ab crunch machine

Similar to crunches, but now you put your body in a weird angle, and move in a restricted form. You also add resistance here, combine this together and you’re on the quick path for chronic back pain and even a spine injury.


Side crunch or air bike

If you want to make the crunches worse, try the side crunch. The most dangerous movement for your spine is bending with rotation, this puts excessive amounts of pressure on the discs and might quickly lead to a herniated disc.

elbow to knee crunch side crunch exercise


Russian twists

This exercise will work your abs and obliques hard, but it is also notorious for being a back wrecker. Leaning back unsupported automatically puts your lumbar spine in a vulnerable position. Then you add heavyweight and twisting, all together put your discs in great risk.

Russian twist core and oblique exercise


Best exercises

So, after we covered the worst, these are some of the exercises that will work your abs and core while keeping your back safe:


Dead Bug

This exercise makes you look like, well, a dead bug. But don’t let the name fool you, it is a very effective ab exercise that doesn’t stress your lower back.

The key here is to keep the back pressed hard against the floor at all times. To do so, your abs need to work hard to keep the back from arching.


Stir the pot

Referred by McGill as “the best core exercise” you should definitely try this one. Balancing a plank position on a swiss ball is hard enough, but in this exercise, you will challenge your core even more and intentionally will throw yourself out of balance by rotating on the ball. You’ll be surprised by how deep you feel the muscles firing within your core.

Start with small circles, and work on increasing the size of the circle you can do as your core gets stronger.

Stir the pot core exercise with ball



You’ve probably heard on this one before, but planks are great to strengthen the core, and it’s a good way to start. But here’s a tip, if you can do more than 2 minutes of plank, the exercise becomes less effective, try a harder variation, like doing the plank on only one arm, or only one leg. Or the toughest one, lift one arm and the opposite leg, you’ll feel your abs burning.

plank pose core exercise


Side Plank

This is one of the McGill's big 3 for spine stability. Much like the plank, but focuses more on the obliques, the sides of your abs.

side plank exercise ab training


Cable anti-rotation or a Pallof press

An important but usually ignored function of your core is to resist rotation – i.e an external force trying to rotate your torso, and the abs and obliques work to keep your torso straight. This is an important function to protect your spine from excessive or forceful rotation which can damage the discs.

You don’t need a gym to do this exercise, a simple exercise band will work the same.

cable palloff press oblique exercise


Curl up

The curl up is another one of the McGill's ‘big 3’ for spine stability, and it’s a good alternative to the crunch and actually designed to prevent back pain. The Curlup forces you to work your entire abdominal muscle complex while keeping your lower back in its naturally arched position.

In this exercise, you put your arms under the lower back to keep its arch and bend only one leg. Then slowly raise your shoulders off the floor as far as you can without bending the lower back and hold for 5 seconds.

Mcgill curl up for back pain exercise demonstration



January 17, 2019, updated Feb 20, 2019 | by kate

Tags abs core best ab exercises lower back pain training guide worst exercises home fitness mcgill safe training

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