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Core exercises that protect your back

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

One of our followers on Facebook recently requested a video about “core exercises that protect your lower back”. Instead of just demonstrating loads of core exercises I’ve decided to take it right back to basics and show you how to effectively recruit your core so that you don’t just end up bracing with all your might.

I would also like to point out that you don't have to do any specific "core" exercises to protect your lower back. Any exercises that strengthens the muscles around your trunk, in your legs and even in your arms will help to take the load off your back. The same goes for back pain - research has shown that you may get quicker results from doing core exercises but that, in the long term, any exercise will help your back pain - it just has to be the right type and intensity for you.

In this article:

  • Understanding the core

  • Signs that you may be doing it wrong

  • How to get that deep core working

  • How to activate your pelvic floor muscles

Here's the video I did about this in the Sports Injury Group.

Understanding the core

Your core muscles are the muscles that surround your trunk and can be split into a deep layer and superficial layer.

The deep layer is made up of your diaphragm at the top, transverse abdominus at the front, pelvic floor muscles at the bottom and multifidus at the back. These muscles have been shown to fire at a very low level during all activities we do and plays a very important role in stabilizing your back.

The superficial layer consist of the rectus abdominus (six pack), internal obliques, external obliques and erector spinae. They also play an important role in stability and protecting your back, but I often find that my patients overuse these and don’t really recruit their deep layer properly.

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Signs that you may be doing it "wrong"

Signs that you may be recruiting your core muscles in a less than efficient way include:

  • if you’re bracing your stomach with all your might;

  • or you’re pulling your stomach in and up into your ribcage;

  • or you’re holding your breath.

I demonstrate this in the video.

How to get that deep core working

So how on earth can you get those deep muscles to work? Well, research has shown that when you contract your pelvic floor muscles, you also automatically activate your transverse abdominus and multifidus muscles.

Pelvic floor exercises are often associated with woman and having babies, but guess what - men have them to! They are the muscles that stop our abdominal content dropping to the floor, they help us control our bladders and weak pelvic floor muscles in men can even contribute to erectile dysfunction.

Image by OpenStax from

Strong pelvic floor muscles provide stability to your lower back in 2 ways:

1. Contracting them increases the intra-abdominal pressure which provides stiffness and stability;

2. Like I mentioned before, activating them also kicks the other deep core muscles into action so that you get a nice all-round stability effect.

That's why my first step when teaching people core exercises is always to teach them how to effectively recruit their pelvic floor muscles.

How to activate your pelvic floor muscles

Your pelvic floor muscles can be split into 2 groups. The ones at the front helps with bladder control and stops you from wetting yourself. The ones at the back supports your rectum and helps you to control your bowel movements and farts (yip, lovely topic for discussion!). Some of my patients find it easier to activate the front ones and others the back ones, but I want you to be able to recruit both parts.

Here’s a bit of a strange request: When you do the following exercises, can I get you to NOT try too hard. I find the harder my patients try the more they just end up recruiting the obliques and other superficial muscles.

I have to be honest, I was going to write all of the exercises out and then I ran out of time. Please watch the video. In it I explain in detail how to activate the front and rear pelvic floor muscles, what not to do and then I also show you how to incorporate that into all your other core exercises.

Let me know if you have any questions. Need more help with an injury? You can consult me online via video call for a diagnosis of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

Best wishes


About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.



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