Flatten Your Abs Without Hurting Your Back

Which exercise can help without hurting?
By Martica Heaner, M.A., M.Ed., for MSN Health & Fitness

Q. I have a herniated disc. What is the best way to flatten and strengthen my upper and lower abdomen, but avoid straining my lower back?

A. A common misconception is that specific exercises will “flatten” the abdomen. Another common misconception is that different abdominal muscles need to be worked—upper vs. lower, for example. Here’s the truth:

If you wish to flatten your abdomen, this suggests that you have extra fat in the area. You can lie on your back and do zillions of ab crunches, V-sits, bicycle moves, reverse curls, curls on the ball, and so on—and not make a dent in the fat on your belly. Why? Because lying on your back and contracting your abdominal muscles burns very few calories. It burns about as many as lying on your back and watching TV (OK, maybe half a calorie per minute more).

To reduce body fat, you need to burn more calories—and a lot of them. This is best accomplished through a combination of eating fewer calories than you normally do, and burning up more calories with greater-than-normal amounts of exercise. The best calorie-burning activities are cardio or highly vigorous workouts such as walking, running, cycling, cardio machines, dancing, and vigorous, quick-paced heavy-weight-lifting circuit routines.

What’s deceptive about ab exercises is that they feel like something is happening. The more you lie on your back and pummel away at those muscles, the bigger the burn. But, don’t be fooled—that burn is not burning fat. It’s simply the result of the occlusion of blood flow and muscle fatigue from the repeated muscle contractions.

You can’t feel fat burning. When you walk for an hour, even at a slow pace, you are burning extra fat, but you can’t feel it being sizzled off your thighs or arms. When you eat less, you also burn extra fat. But again, you can’t feel this happening. What you might think is happening to your abs as you pound away at them with core exercise, is not. So what is happening? You’re strengthening the muscles, or developing increased muscle endurance. This is beneficial, as long as the type of ab training you do is not stressful to your back—especially if your back is already vulnerable from a previous injury or weakness.

To reduce your waistline, do more cardio. You can improve the strength and endurance of your core muscles by making sure that you have good posture during any cardio that you do. Stand up tall, lengthen your spine, and engage your abs—but don’t suck them in too deeply, because then you flex the lower back and increase the pressure on it.

I’ve written extensively about the best exercises for strengthening your lower back. Ab muscles work synergistically: When you work one, you work them all. Also, there are no separate upper and lower muscles. The rectus abdominis (your six-pack muscle), for example, is one long muscle that spans from your ribs to your pubis. When you do a reverse curl that targets the “lower” area, the upper area still contracts. When you do a curl and feel it more in the upper area, the lower area still contracts.

But these moves may not be the best way to help your spine. Instead, concentrate on exercises that stabilize, rather than mobilize (or move) your spine. Pushups, planks, and hands-and-knee ab-tightening exercises are best. Check out my columns Six-Pack Abs, As Seen On TV and Are Crunches The Wrong Move? And try these exercises in MSN’s Fit Zone: Build a Better Back Now and Flat, Sexy Abs in Five Moves.

Find all articles by Martica.

Do you have a fitness or weight-loss question for Martica? Send e-mail to experts@microsoft.com. Please include Ask Martica in the subject line.

Each of our experts responds to one question each week and the responses are posted on Mondays on MSN Health. We regret that we cannot provide a personalized response to every submission.

Martica is a Manhattan-based exercise physiologist and nutritionist and an award-winning fitness instructor. She has written for a variety of publications including Self, Health, Prevention, The New York Times and others. Martica is the author of seven books, including her latest, Cross-training for Dummies. (Read her full bio.)

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