7 Smart Ways to Work Your abs Without Neck or Back Pain

Mistake #2: Your Arms Are Doing the Work Instead of Your Core

What if your arms are doing too much work? Specifically, if you’re not using a towel and instead you’re placing your hands behind your head, it’s important to remember that this should not be an arm workout. Your arms and hands are simply supporting your neck. But a major mistake people make is engaging the arms instead of the abs.

Trainer Kristina Alai, certified fitness trainer at The Bay Club Company, says that while doing exercises like crunches, you may be overcompensating by grabbing your neck with your hands instead of focusing on the ab engagement. Liana Hughes, certified personal trainer and coach for the fitness app Gixo, says, “It’s very common for people to want to pull their neck when they have their fingertips behind their head.” For many. it’s an automatic action that we do without even noticing, so even if you don’t think this applies to you, it can be smart to keep these two tips in mind:

  • Fix #1: Slow down. Alai says that some people try to go fast just to get the workout done quickly. She says, “This results in a jolting and jerking motion instead of taking your time through an exercise.” Essentially you’re trying to retrain your body and your brain to initiate the movement from your abs rather than your head, neck and arms. This can take time.
  • Fix #2: Focus on where your movement is coming from. It may sounds obvious, but “you actually want to initiate movement from your abs when doing ab exercises,” says Hughes. “Gently resting your head in your fingertips, think about your form as you are doing the move.”

Mistake #3: You’re Using Your Back, Not Your Core

As a Pilates instructor, I see so many people using their back instead of their abs to do abdominal exercises. This is concerning because when done incorrectly it can lead to a lower back injury. That’s why it’s important to laser focus in on the transverse abdominis, the deepest ab muscle, to ensure the low back is not overworking in core exercises. This is most common in exercises where your legs are extended or straight. When done correctly, it should feel challenging to keep your core engaged and you will feel this deep in your core muscles (and not so much in your back.) But how can you ensure you have the proper engagement?

  • Fix #1: Reduce the range of motion. When your legs are up in the air for ab exercises, whether you’re moving laterally or side to side, cut the range of motion by 50 percent. By forcing yourself to use smaller movements, you’re able to ensure that your abs do the work and your back stays connected to the floor.
  • Fix #2: Place your hands under your butt. “For extended leg moves, try sliding your hands under your butt to keep your low back on the ground and pain free and focus on breathing; try moving your limbs on the exhale when your core is naturally bracing and you may find this helps as well,” Hughes recommends.

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