Forget sit-ups — 7 of the best ab exercises you can do with sciatica

a photo of a woman with strong abdominal muscles
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Whether you suffer from sciatica or generalized back pain, you might wonder how to do ab exercises without aggravating your symptoms. Good news — ab workouts aren’t off the table, you’ll just need to tailor your routine.

We’ve grouped these exercises to avoid, according to an expert, but just because you might know what not to do, it doesn’t mean you know which moves are safe. 

A good rule of thumb is to pick ab exercises that support your back, but there’s a little more to know. Below, we discuss what sciatica is and the best ab exercises you can do to strengthen your core. We also recommend one of the best yoga mats to lay down on while you do them.

What is sciatica?

Image of sciatic nerve on the human body

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Sciatica shows up differently for many people. It could be a tingling sensation, numbness or nagging pain down your back, butt and into your leg or legs caused by damage or irritation to the sciatic nerve. 

Untreated, any interruption to neural function could impact how you stand, walk or exercise and could limit sensations in the area. 

Why strong abs matter

Your abs are just one of many muscle groups that make up the core, but they're still important and worth strengthening.

The best core exercises isolate and strengthen these muscles as a whole, rather than just your abs. This network of muscles wrap around your torso like a tire and are responsible for safe motion in all planes of movement, posture and stabilization. Your abs are important nonetheless, and can be targeted using the best ab exercises out there.

So, a strong core is super crucial. And without it, you wouldn’t be able to lift heavy weights, run, or exercise in other ways safely. Even if you have back pain, you can still develop your core using ab exercises. 

In fact, strengthening these muscles could help prevent or reduce back pain symptoms. You’ll also need a robust set of glutes, hip flexors and hamstrings to protect your lower back, so ab exercises that allow you to target them are also brilliant.

Best ab exercises for sciatica 

Forearm plank

Stock image of person performing a forearm plank against white background

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We recommend sticking to a regular forearm or high plank rather than dipping into plank variations. By practicing good form, you can keep your spine properly aligned and neutral rather than placing stress on the lower back. 

Planks also activate all the major muscles, including ones in your chest, shoulders, arms, hips, back, glutes, quads and hamstrings. It’s isometric, meaning the muscles build strength without moving, which is low impact. 

You can learn how to do planks here. Start by holding for 20-30 seconds, rest, then repeat for 3-4 sets.  

Abdominal curl-ups

Vector of woman doing an ab curl-up against a white backdrop

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The supported position of ab curl-ups is far better than crunches for anyone with back pain. Start with your knees bent, feet flat and tilt your pelvis toward you, which should flatten your lower back into the mat. Squeeze your abs tightly and gently suck your belly in while keeping your hands on your chest and upper back slightly lifted off the floor. If you prefer, extend one leg away from you. 

Hold for 10-20 seconds, then release, rest and repeat for 3-4 sets.

Stability ball knee tucks

Vector man performing a stability ball knee tuck against white backdrop

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Without flexion or extension of the lower back, those with sciatica could do this exercise safely while hitting the core muscles hard. Start with a push-up position and rest your feet on the stability ball behind you. Keep your stomach braced, arms extended, and hips lifted and use both legs to draw the ball toward your chest. Pause, then roll it back to the start position. Ensure your spine stays straight without tucking your pelvis, as this will strain your back. 

Aim for 10-12 reps for 3-4 sets. 

Stability ball wall sit

Vector woman performing a wall sit with stability ball between her back and the wall and arms outstretched

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We’ve nicked this from our round-up of 7 stability ball exercises to add to your routine and adapted it. Place a stability ball between you and the wall and gently press your back against it with a neutral, supported spine. Hold a squat position, and try walking your feet away from you and back again for an extra challenge. 

The isometric exercise requires core activation and stability to hold the sit while working the quads, hamstrings and hips in a supported position. 

Start by holding for 20-30 seconds, rest, then repeat for 3-4 sets. 

Bird dog

an illo of a woman doing the bird dog exercise

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Bird dogs work the core, including the erector spinae muscles that support the spine, the glutes, abs, hamstrings, upper trapezius and deltoids. Start on your hands and knees with a neutral spine and extend one arm in front of you (aligned with your shoulder) while extending the opposite leg behind you (at hip height). 

Complete reps on one side, then switch, always moving with control. Keep your neck neutral by looking slightly ahead of your mat, and keep your back flat. 

Here’s how to do the bird dog exercise and why you should. Start with 10-12 reps per side and repeat for 3-4 sets. 

Bear squats

an illo of a woman doing a bear plank

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Continuing the theme of animal-focused exercises, we have bear squats. 

The quad-torching exercise also strengthens your core, shoulders and arms and improves joint flexibility and range of motion. Perform the bear as a holding position, keeping your stomach braced and back flat, then practice pushing your hips toward your heels while keeping your knees an inch off the ground to perform the squats. 

Move with control and without tucking your pelvis underneath you. Learn more about the move and what happened when we did 70 bear squats every day for a week here. 

Start with 10-12 reps for 3-4 sets. 

Supported side plank dips

an illo of a woman doing a side plank

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Some people find side plank is doable with sciatica, but if you’re shaking your head in disbelief — try this side plank dips variation instead. Known as the McKenzie Side Glide, the exercise stretches the waist and improves range of motion, symptoms of pain and core stability. 

Stand facing side-on to a wall and rest your forearm against it at shoulder height. Step your feet away and rest toward the wall, keeping your stomach engaged and spine neutral — you should be able to draw a straight line from head to toe. Slowly push your hip toward the wall, then return to the start position.

Perform 10-12 reps and hold the stretch, if you prefer, for 3-4 sets per side.

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III qualified fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.