Abs & Low Back: Supporting Cast

We ogle them, we obsess about them and we’re constantly holding them in. We look at them as a benchmark of superior fitness. We’re talking about abs, of course. But do you realize that it would be impossible to have fantastic abs without a strong and supportive low back? This is based on the fact that when you train your core muscles (abdominals and low back), you improve strength, stability and even power. Think about the power that generates Venus Williams’ lethal serve: It comes from the center of her body and transfers out to her arms. Likewise, many “accidental” and overuse injuries can trace their origins back to weak core muscles. If you engage in activities such as lifting a toddler, carrying loads of groceries and lifting weights at the gym when these two parts of your body aren’t strong, you may be putting yourself at risk for a debilitating injury. Instead, check out this routine that incorporates both muscle groups for a-strong and sexy midsection – all the way around.


When I train my clients, I like to be quick and efficient. I want to challenge their cardiovascular and neuromuscular systems simultaneously, and I want them to work not only hard but smart. That’s why I believe that supersets are a fantastic training principle. The Weider System of Bodybuilding defines the superset as a “grouping of two exercises for antagonist muscle groups [in this case, abs and low back] with as little rest as possible between the exercises and a 30-60-second rest between supersets.” This fast training will surely increase your metabolic rate and promote fat loss.

To make even more of your efforts, you’ll be doing most of the movements in this routine on an exercise ball. A recent study showed that performing crunch exercises on a ball increased abdominal muscle activity and placed a higher demand on the motor control system than crunches on a stable surface. It also appeared to increase external oblique muscle activity more than that of other abdominal muscles. Crunches on a ball change both the level of muscle activity and the way the muscles co-activate to stabilize the spine and the whole body.

Set, Rep And Weight Recommendations

Within the descriptions of each exercise, you’ll find suggestions for progressions from beginner to intermediate to advanced. If the exercises are new to you, however, even if you’re an advanced exerciser, consider yourself a beginner at least for the first time through. Technique, balance and control and crucial, and quality is always better than quantity.

Start with 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise. For your first time, choose the least amount of sets and reps (three sets of eight reps) and work your way up from there. First increase the reps until you can do three sets of 12, then add an additional set of eight reps. You may want to add weight to the exercises when four sets of 12 reps are no longer challenging.

Although opinions on how to train the core muscles vary – high vs. low reps – I advise training for hypertrophy (growth) and strength, and then use the muscles all day long for endurance. In other words, training for hypertrophy will increase muscle mass and metabolic rate, as well as give you a six-pack and build functional strength. The ab muscles respond the same way as other muscle groups and should be trained at most only every other day. But you can work on them and your low back daily by contracting them constantly.

Training Tips

  • Keep your abs contracted throughout every rep for abs and low back.
  • Keep your neck, head and shoulders in alignment by having a certified trainer or a training partner watch you.
  • Avoid using momentum and swinging movements.
  • Low-back muscle soreness is an expected outcome from low- back exercises. Don’t confuse muscle soreness with true pain from an injury. If you do experience low-back pain that you believe is related to a low-back injury, stop the program immediately. If the pain is debilitating or persists for more than a few days, seek medical advice.
  • Minimize injury potential by starting out slowly, making small progressions and maintaining correct form.

Change It Up

Training programs get stale and boring after about a month of consistent workouts. Once your body adapts to a particular workout, you won’t see any gains unless you change the sets, reps, weights or exercises. This is why variety has been built into the program. As a beginner, you’ll concentrate on perfecting each movement with smaller range of motion (ROM) and fewer reps and sets. As you progress to the intermediate level, you’ll increase all of the above. When you achieve advanced status, you’ll hit full ROM and add weight, sets and reps. You may perform these exercises 1-2 times per week for a month to progress to the advanced level, but that’s okay because you progressively increase your effort. You can stay at the advanced level for another month or so as long as you continue to improve.

Deadlift (Low Back)

  • Beginner: full ROM with lightweight dumbbells
  • Intermediate: full ROM with heavier dumbbells
  • Advanced: heavy weight with a barbell

Beginners and intermediates set up by first placing the dumbbells on the floor to the outside of each leg. To begin, position your feet about hip-width apart, flat on the floor, toes pointed out slightly. Tighten your abs and keep your back flat or slightly arched. Bend your knees and lower your hips into a deep squat position, with your hips lower than your shoulders. Grasp the dumbbells, inhale and hold your breath as you begin to pull the weights off the floor, keeping your back flat, head directed forward and weights close to your body. Keep your arms straight and exhale as you come all the way up to a fully erect stance without leaning back at the top of the lift. Inhale and hold your breath as you slowly lower the weights, again keeping your back flat. Exhale and pause at the bottom while you reset your body position before doing another rep. When you can advance to a barbell, position it on the floor in front of you so that it lightly touches your shins. Use an overhand grip slightly wider than where your legs touch the bar. Look forward and pull against the bar so there’s no “slack” in your arms. Lift the bar as you rise, keeping the bar close to your legs.

Swiss-Ball Pull-In (Abs)

  • Beginner: small ROM
  • Intermediate: full ROM
  • Advanced: unilaterally

Get into a push-up position with your shins and ankles on top of a Swiss ball, legs straight. Keeping your back flat, pull your knees in toward your chest, allowing the ball to roll forward. Hold for a moment and contract your abs, then straighten your legs, rolling the ball back to the starting position. Beginners start by bringing the ball in only halfway the chest: intermediates should concentrate on full ROM. Advanced exercisers place one leg on the ball – the other leg extended – and pull it in toward the chest.

Swiss-Ball Reverse Crunch (Abs)

  • Beginner: small ROM, arms at your sides or behind head
  • Intermediate: full ROM with hip lift, arms behind head
  • Advanced: with simultaneous upper ab crunch, arms behind: head

Lie on your back and rest your lower legs atop a Swiss ball, so the ball is tucked behind your knees, between your calves and thighs. Dig your heels into the ball to stabilize its position and contract your abs. Raise your legs and the ball, bringing your knees to your chest. To make it harder, lift your hips off the floor as you raise your legs. For a bigger challenge, perform an upper ab crunch while simultaneously doing the lower ab crunch.

Prone Leg Extension (Low Back)

  • Beginner: on floor, raising one leg at a time, progressing to both legs
  • Intermediate: on swiss ball, raising one leg and the opposite arm
  • Advanced: on swiss ball, raising one leg and the opposite arm with hand and: ankle weights
  • Advanced plus: on Swiss ball raising both legs (with or without weight)

If you’re a beginner, start facedown on the floor with your arms at your sides. Tighten your abs and glutes, keeping your pelvis down, and lift one leg off the floor. Pause, then lower under control. Progress to raising, both legs simultaneously. If you’re at the intermediate level, lie facedown on a Swiss ball, your arms outstretched over the ball, hands touching the floor and legs straight back with your toes on the floor, Rise, hold and then lower your right arm and left leg simultaneously. Repeat with the left arm and right leg. For a challenge, add hand and ankle weights. To progress, lift both legs together while on the Swiss ball. For the super-advanced, add weight.

Swiss-Ball Crunch (Abs)

  • Beginner: small ROM crunch with shoulder blades just off ball, hands crossed over chest
  • Intermediate: full ROM crunch, hands behind head
  • Advanced: full ROM crunch, arms overhead
  • Advanced plus: full ROM crunch; arms overhead with weight

Lie back on a Swiss ball with your low- and mid-back supported, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands accordingly, based on your fitness level, and crunch up to your level of strength. Slowly lower in a controlled manner.

Back Extension (Low Back)

  • Beginner: limited ROM on Swiss ball
  • Intermediate: fuller ROM on Swiss ball
  • Advanced: fuller ROM on Swiss ball with weights

Lie facedown on a Swiss ball, legs straight, toes touching the floor, hands behind your head and head down. Raise your upper body off the ball and slowly return to the start position. Beginners should limit the amount of upward movement; intermediates should go as high as comfortable, but not much above 20 degrees from parallel. For the biggest challenge, hold a weight in your hands or progress to a back extension bench (with or without weight).

This routine will help increase muscle mass and metabolic rate, as well as help give you a six-pack.

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