How Men Over 40 Can Build Core Strength Without Back Pain

Author, fitness model, and trainer Kirk Charles, NASM-CPT CES, knows that as you get older, life can get more complicated. But that shouldn’t prevent you from being on top of your game. He’ll help to answer the tough training questions that come with age so you too can be Fit Beyond 40.

For the older man who thinks there’s no way to work your abs except for an endless string of crunches and leg lifts, there is still hope.

I have two clients in their mid 50s who have shied away from many ab exercises because they have back pain. If you’ve ever experienced chronic back pain, you know there is always a fear of making it worse, so many activities and exercises are cut out of your life—especially exercise that require you to bend, like the exercises above that feature spinal flexion. However, I started doing the hollow hold about six months ago to help with the curvature in my lower back, improve my posture and strengthen my core.

I tried it with both of my clients and they loved the move (and haven’t complained about their backs when they do it). The beauty of the hollow hold is that it demands that you ground your lower back to the floor, which gives you a more security while working your abs. Also, since it’s an isometric exercise, so you don’t have to be concerned about movement, which can be a concern for those with easily inflamed back issues.

To set up, lie on your back with your arms at your sides. Drive your lower back against the ground so there’s no space between your back and the floor; flexing your abs will help with this. Now all you must do is lift your feet a few inches off the floor. Finish the move by raising your shoulders an inch off the floor and extending your arms as well.

Ultimately, you want to aim for your feet to be 2 to 3 inches off the ground—but that might be tough to start, especially for older guys. It may be easier for them to do a variation by slightly bending their knees while doing the hollow hold. In those cases, I use an alternate starting method so they may eventually progress into the ideal position.

Instead of starting with your legs and arms on the floor, start by raising your legs up toward the ceiling with your knees bent at 90 degrees. This starting position helps to bring your back closer to the floor without the two levers of the extended legs and arms. It’s effective if you have excessive curvature in your lumbar region (anterior pelvic tilt) and find it difficult to bring your lower back to the floor with your legs fully extended. From that position you can extend your legs out toward the floor to a comfortable position and height where your abs are totally engaged, without full extension of your knees. You can still use the previous method to bring your arms into the ideal position.

Another advantage of the hollow hold is that you can vary it to make it more challenging. For instance, you can hold a weight in your hands while your arms are overhead. You can also do an offset position where one arm is elevated above your head and one arm is elevated laterally toward the side of your body (with or without weights in hand).

With the ideal position or the variation, the ultimate goal would be to stay in the hollow hold position for 45 to 60 seconds. However, start out with 10 to 15 seconds three or four times to get comfortable, while building strength and endurance to progress to a full minute.

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