For decades, ab training meant situps, curling your upper body all the way up off the floor, rounding your lower back. Some people got nice-looking abs doing this — and lots more ended up with back pain.
Today, smart trainers don’t advocate for isolation ab training, but focus instead on core training, exercises that make all the ab and lower-back muscles work together to stabilize and thereby protect the spine. The result is a strong, muscular midsection, and an injury-proof back.
David Jack, creator of the Men’s Health Muscle After 40 program, says that proper core training is even more important for men over 40, who can be even more injury-prone than they were in their younger years — especially in their lower backs. “When we lose the natural arch in our lower spine, that’s big trouble,” says Jack. “The trick is to train your core with exercises that avoid making your spine round excessively, which puts pressure on the spinal discs.”
The workout below activates all your core muscles without aggravating the lower back. Plank variations train you to keep your spine in line with your head and pelvis, which prevents any forward flexing in your lower lumbar. Meanwhile, the bending you do perform (band-resisted crunch, hollow hold bicycle) will be through shortened ranges of motion, so you can work your six-pack muscles while keeping your lumbar out of flexion.
Perform the following exercises in sequence. You can do 2 to 3 sets for each move, or do one exercise at a time and repeat the whole series 2 to 3 times. On each exercise, perform reps for 40 seconds (on moves where you work one side at a time, spend 20 seconds on each side) and then rest as needed so your form will be sharp for the next round. “When you don’t count reps,” says Jack, “you’re less likely to rush. You can focus more on the movement and just flow with it.”
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