3 core exercises for a healthy back & more

Back pain. A nurse’s arch nemesis. Chronic back pain plagues nurses, certified nursing assistants, and other health care professionals all over the country. In fact, the American Nurses Association (ANA) reported in their Handle with Care Fact Sheet that “nursing personnel are among the highest at risk for musculoskeletal disorders“, most of which are back and shoulder related injuries. Low back injuries in particular, however, are often associated with patient care tasks like lifting.

Is there hope for nurses with back pain?

Dr. Stuart McGill (2015) believes there is. In his book Back Mechanic, Dr. McGill explains that spinal stability is achieved by “bracing” the muscles around your spine (kinda like how a back brace tightens the muscles to the front, back, and sides of your spine). That means you are engaging and contracting all these muscles so that they are stiff and sturdy, thus minimizing excessive bone movement in the spinal column.

If the muscles surrounding your spine were limp, imagine how your vertebral discs could herniate or fall out of place very easily–especially with repeated movements overtime (such as bending and lifting).

In other words, a “strong core” does NOT mean having a six pack. It means that your core muscles are effectively doing their job to keep your spine healthy.

Oh okay — I’ll start doing more crunches then!

Sure, if you want a one-way ticket directly to Occupational Health! Here is the problem with sit ups and crunches.

Embed from Getty Images

Dr. McGill explains that bending at your spine causes the cartilaginous discs in-between the vertebrae to deform in order to facilitate the movement. As such, doing any ab movement that incorporates bending at your spine can predispose your disc fibers to cracking and herniation (McGill, 2015).

Image from Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions

The main role of the core muscles is to stop motion, not to create motion (McGill, 2015). As a result, core bracing exercises are ideal for protecting the spine and for strengthening what the core was intended to do in the first place. Again, we are training the core to stay STILL.

Okay, okay, I get it. NO crunches. Now what?

I’m glad you asked! Below are three excellent ab exercises for core strengthening, especially for nurses who are constantly lifting and bending. These exercises can protect your spine and, if done correctly, can prevent the onset of low back injury or pain.

Here’s what you need.

For these exercises, you will need an exercise mat, resistance cable, and a dumbbell.You can incorporate these movements into a larger circuit workout like my beginner HIIT workout, or perform them at the end of your workout to seriously challenge the core.

*Please note that results vary from person to person and that you must consult your physician prior to starting any formal fitness program.*

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Pallof Press

  1. Loop your resistance cable around a sturdy anchor (e.g. heavy table, pole).
  2. Set the band at the height of your chest and then walk away from the band until you feel tension.
  3. Once you feel tension, stand perpendicularly to the band so that your chest and shoulders are facing forward while the band is horizontal to you.
  4. From a standing position, step your feet out a little larger than shoulder width apart. Then sit your hips back into a “half squat”.
  5. Hold the band handle so that both of your palms are facing each other. Your hands should be clasping the handle and touching your chest with your elbows bent beside your ribcage.
  6. You should be feeling tension in this position, as if your abs/core are trying to fight the pull from the resistance band. Keep your shoulders, chest, and feet facing forward. This is your starting position.
  7. Brace your abs (as if you are preparing for someone to punch you in the gut), then press both hands forward until both of your arms are straight out in front of you (at chest height).
  8. Slowly bring your hands back in to starting position. Repeat for 10 repetitions for a total of 3 rounds. Or perform for 20-30 seconds as part of a HIIT workout.
  9. If you find that standing in a half squat position is difficult for you to maintain while doing the exercise, you can opt to decrease the resistance of the band or perform a wall sit during the exercise. This will help you gain more stability as you press, while still working your core against the rotation of the band!

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Dead Bug

  1. Lay on your exercise mat with both arms extended above you, feet off the ground, and knees over your hips. Your hips should not bend past your waist, and your back should be completely flat on the ground.  This is your starting position.
  2. Brace your abs (tighten them as if someone is going to punch you in the gut) and carefully straighten out your right leg slowly so that your lower back does not lift or arch off the ground.
  3. At the same time, raise your left arm until your elbow is next to your head. This exercise works not only on your abs, but coordination!
  4. Keep your abs braced the entire time and carefully switch sides. The left leg should be straightened out in front of you while the right arm is reaching behind you. And vice versa. Repeat for 10 times on both sides for a total of 3 rounds.
  5. It takes a few tries to get this! You can practice isolating one extremity at a time first, before going into the full fledged exercise:

It helps to practice extending one extremity at a time before doing the full exercise.

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Suitcase Carry

  1. Grab a dumbbell and stand tall with your back upright, head facing forward,chest up, shoulders down (not shrugged) and back, and feet hip width apart. The palm gripping the dumbbell should be facing towards your body. The dumbbell should be heavy enough where you feel tension in the side that is holding the weight. Start out with a light weight first to get used to the movement and prevent injury!
  2. Brace your abs so that you are preventing your weighted side from dropping downward.
  3. Hold the dumbbell out just enough so that it is not hitting the side of your thigh.
  4. Prepare to walk! Walk around for about 20 to 30 seconds (for at least 3 rounds) to build endurance. Be sure to work both sides. You can increase weight once you are comfortable with walking at this weight for about one minute.

I love doing all three of these core exercises on a regular basis! Not only are they challenging, but they are fun and they help me to develop my core strength in a more functional, practical way! They also help me to stay injury-free so I can take care of my patients safely.

Give this workout a try and let me know what you think in the Comments section below! Thank you so much for reading, and do not forget to tag #UnbreakableNurse in your social media posts to raise awareness in this movement to fight nurse burnout!


McGill, S. (2015). Back mechanic: The secrets to a healthy spine your doctor isn’t telling you: The step-by-step McGill method to fix back pain. Gravenhurst, Ontario: Backfitpro Inc.

American Nurses Association: Handle with care fact sheet. Retrieved from http://www.nursingworld.org/MainMenuCategories/ANAMarketplace/Factsheets-and-Toolkits/FactSheet.html.

2 thoughts on “3 core exercises for a healthy back & more

  1. Hi There! I really enjoyed this post! It’s so important to take care of your core and keep it nice and strong. I especially like how you detailed your 3 core exercises so extensively, focusing on technique as well which is super important and something that is often overlooked. Also, thank you for saying no to crunches, I 100% agree with you when you say that they are not great for your back. I am a student, so I am constantly bending over my computer studying which is terrible for my posture. But I find that doing core exercises really helps reduce my back pain! If you interested, my blog is all about empowering university aged women to go to the gym and get fit. I would love you to check it out if you’re keen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello there! Thank you so much for reading through my post!! So glad you agree on the idea that crunches are bad for your back!! Props to you for wanting to empower women to get fit!! Would definitely check your blog out 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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