Does a "Weak Core" cause Back Pain?
Does your back hurt when you’re doing a front plank? Whether you’re trying to fix your core after a bout of back pain or sciatica or protect your back, just about everybody you talk to or look at online recommends doing planks. But what happens when it is the plank that gives you back pain? Where should you start? What if you feel too weak to even hold a modified plank on your knees?
Most of the time, when we’re dealing with back pain, it seems that everybody’s answer to you is to do more core work. So you youtube core exercises, maybe talk with a trainer or your friends and they all seem to come back to the plank. If you’re new to exercise or core work let’s cover just what your core is and what it does. Then we’ll get to some exercises to do when you don’t feel that your core is up to the task.
Register for our free 30 minute on demand training 4 Simple Strategies to start treating Sciatica and Low Back Pain or get our free book, 5 things you can do today to Ease Low Back Pain and Sciatica where I teach you strategies on how to put an end to low pain and stiffness without surgery, injections, or dangerous painkillers.
What is your core?
Like it sounds, your core is at the center or you. If you think of it like a box, it has your diaphragm or breathing muscle at its top, your back muscles as its back, your oblique muscles(muscles on the side of your stomach) as its sides, your “6 pack” at the front along with your and your pelvic floor connecting your tailbone to your pubic bone and supporting you from below along with the core muscle everybody forgets-the glutes. Deep to all these is another muscle that acts like your internal back brace, the transversus abdominis. All of these muscles work together to brace and control the spine and give it what it just one of the things that it needs, stability. The logic goes that if you can just stabilize your spine you will be pain free but that often is not the case(because stability is just one of the things that the low back and spine needs.
How does back pain affect your core?
When we’re dealing with back pain, we’re often dealing with something that causes your body’s alarm system to go off. You may be dealing with a bulging disc, spine arthritis, a combination, or maybe your MRI or X-ray came back with nothing on it(by the way, if you had these images more than 3 months ago- I have amazing news for you- bulging discs heal! Read the article to learn more). Regardless of what the images say, you still want to be pain free when you exercise or are playing with the kids so what’s going on? First, when we have back pain, our bodies try to limit us. They do that by changing how our core muscles engage or turn on. When they don’t turn on in the right pattern or don’t have enough “juice” to control or stabilize the spine, we get a shot of pain to slow us down. Now which came first, the weak core or the back pain? As a Physiotherapist, I see many people with super strong cores but are still dealing with back pain. They are able to do 5 minute planks, squat with hundreds of pounds, or are even elite athletes but are still dealing with back pain. But they can all tell something isn’t quite right with their cores turning on when they need them and the pain is often the cause(and not a weak core). In fact, doing core exercises have never been shown to help prevent back pain and they have never been shown to be better in treating back pain than other exercises.
But my core feels weak!
No doubt about it, when we have pain(anywhere) , especially in the back, we feel weak. But feeling weak is very different from actually being weak. Scientists have done studies looking at when people are in pain and have lots of fear about using their back, they sometimes feel weak but, when tested, they have as much strength as they need to do everything that life can throw at them in their day.
How to think about core exercises
So, what do those core muscles do anyway? Well-their first job is to resist movement. Before gyms, everybody got strong cores not by laying on the ground and reaching for their toes, holding a position for minutes on end, or by using a machine. They did it through lifting things, moving things, and by daily chores. Their core got stronger by resisting twisting, bending, or by pulling on things. So we can think of our cores as “anti-” muscles. So how can you mimic some of those tried and true ways of getting a stronger core and using those muscles how they were meant to be used? Try these 3 core exercise variations.
Half kneel anti-rotation press
Tools: Resistance band and something secure to tie it to
In a half kneel with one leg in front, knee and hip at 90 degrees(place a pillow under your back knee if you deal with knee pain) and with some tension on the band, bold the band with both hands at your chest then press it out in front of you trying to resist it turning you(keep it straight in front of your belly button). Hold 5 to 10 seconds then bring back to your chest for a 3 second rest and repeat.
Cook Hip Lift
Tools: Tennis Ball
While lying on your back, squeeze one knee to your chest holding the ball in place on your ribs. Bend your other knee and with only your heel touching the ground, lift your bottom off the ground(it won't move very far). Try to hold for 5 seconds, lower(without losing control of the ball) and repeat.
Tools: Counter top
If you can’t do a plank on the ground even modified with your knees on the ground, then reduce the load by placing your arms on a countertop, table, or couch and gradually work your way down to the floor. Once you can do about sixty seconds without issues, you are probably ready to progress to the next level down towards the floor i.e. if you start on the counter which is about waist height, then progress down to maybe the side of a couch, then the couch with cushions removed and finally to the floor on your knees.
What to do about the back pain or sciatica?
First off, it is really hard to strengthen your way out of pain. Many suffer needlessly doing crunches, planks, sitting on a stability ball, or any number of strength exercises when their spines need something different. Something to turn off the pain. Watch our free on-demand workshop 4 simple strategies to tame sciatica and low back pain or get your copy of 5 things you can do today to Ease Low Back Pain and Sciatica or Schedule your free consult with one of our back pain experts to start getting it sorted out today and find out the true cause of your pain and what it will take to fix it.