Most abdominal hernias are asymptomatic. However, they can get bigger over time and become painful or even strangulated, which is a medical emergency and will require hernia repair. The best course of action here is working to prevent one. Abdominal hernia exercises and working out in general will help you manage or lose weight and keep abdominal muscles and connective tissue strong and healthy. Here are the exercises our physical therapist recommend:
Types of Exercises to Try
When starting an exercise program for the abdomen, there are some essential basics that need to be addressed first.
Start with proper breathing and core activation to help reduce strain and the risk of developing a weak spot in any muscle walls with daily activities.
Then focus on dynamic and functional strengthening exercises to optimize your overall health and trunk strength.
Exercises to Prevent An Abdominal Hernia
There are six core exercises listed below. Regardless of whether you have an abdominal hernia or not, these exercises will help bring balance to your trunk muscles and body.
These exercises are great for you regardless of the type of hernia you are concerned about. If you’d like more specific exercises for a different type of hernia you can find more on each below:
This exercise is easiest to start lying down. It focuses on building good breathing techniques that are often forgotten with poor form, pain and more. It is perfect for pain management, relaxation, and good blood perfusion to the abdomen and diaphragm as well. This is great for both preventing and managing an abdominal hernia.
Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor
Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach
Close your eyes and imagine the air flowing into your belly as you take a deep breath
Focus on lifting the hand on your belly with your inhale
If your chest is lifting, this means that your “accessory” chest muscles are working over the diaphragm
Start slowly and with intention until this breathing techniques becomes natural
Try 10 deep breaths for 2-3 sets to start, and then build to more functional breathe as often as possible throughout your day
To progress, move to sitting or standing
2. Pelvic Tilts
A pelvic tilt is a great way to promote optimal abdominal and spine flexibility and strength. This requires being able to coordinate both core activation and spine movement at once.
Lie on your back in the same position for the deep breathing exercise above
Take a deep breathe as you tighten your lower abs (bringing the belly button toward the spine)
Gently tilt the pelvis backward as you attempt to flatten the entire low back against the floor
Hold for 1-2 seconds before exhaling and returning your spine to the starting position
This exercise can be hard to coordinate at first, particularly for men - keep in mind that the motion is coming from the lumbar spine and pelvis and not the hips or mid-back
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets per day
3. Side Stepping
Side stepping is a great way to boost hip strength (both outer and inner thigh) and lateral core strength. This is a very functional move that can help you build better form with daily activities as well as promote optimal fitness and strength with a lesser risk of abdominal injury.
Start on the floor if needed, otherwise grab a foam balance pad for a bigger challenge
Stand to one side of the pad with the feet hip width apart
Simply lift the foot closest to the pad up and place it on the pad as far on the opposite end of the pad as possible
Then, bring your other leg up onto the pad
Next, step with that same leg off the other side of the pad, stepping far enough to leave room for the other foot to return as well
Alternate stepping back and forth with each leg leading from side to side
Repeat for 10 repetitions on each leg for 2-3 sets total
To progress, you can step further away from the pad and make your step into a side lunge on and off the pad - this will target the inner groin and pelvic floor even further
A squat is a great functional move to practice, as long as you can do it without holding your breath or straining. For this reason, it’s best to focus on using your body weight with good form rather than adding weight.
Stand with the feet hip width apart or wider - the wider your feet are apart the more your toes will need to point outward to accommodate - a wider stance will target the inner thighs more
Find an optimal posture with a relatively flat back and tight core
As you bend your knees and hips to squat down, keep your weight in your heels and the butt back as if you were going to sit in a chair
As you get deeper, make sure the knees stay in alignment with the toes - not flaring inward, outward or forward
Go as deep as possible while keeping good form without pain - with the goal of eventually getting your thighs parallel with the floor (deeper is not necessary and can be hard on the knees)
Continue to keep good form as you press back up and return to the starting position
Repeat for 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets
5. Plank with Progression Options
A plank is a great well-rounded exercise for building core strength, with the caveat that you need to start with good form. Thus, it’s usually best to start on your forearms and knees and then build from there. With time you can build strength and incorporate a balance disc or yoga ball.
Start on your hands and knees on the floor
Place your upper body weight through the forearms - keeping them parallel to the each other - your elbows should be directly under your shoulders
With your arms in place, focus on getting the rest of your body into position by creating a straight line with your entire body from the knees to your head
Keep the abs and mid-back tight as you hold - making sure the hips aren’t flexing so that the butt is up in the air or that the low back is sagging
Hold for 30+ seconds 2-3 sets
Progress your plank hold with time and level of difficulty as necessary
6. Bird Dog Plank
This floor exercise is another great all around core and full body strengthening move. It requires you to coordinate the shoulder blades, abs, and glutes all at once. As always, only perform this move if you can keep good form.
Start on your hands and knees on the floor
Make sure your hands are directly under the shoulders and the knees are directly under the hips
Make a straight line with your spine from your butt to the top of your head
Tighten the abs as you lift your left arm and right leg off the ground
Extend the right leg behind you as far as possible, straightening the knee and hip, while simultaneously reaching the left arm forward, outstretched and in line with the body
Hold your fully extended position for 1-3 seconds while keeping the spine still, not allowing any rotation or arching in the lower back
Return to the starting position and repeat for 10-15 repetitions on the same side
Switch to the opposite side and repeat for 2-3 stets on each leg
If this is too hard, start with just the the arm or leg
What Increases Risk of Abdominal Hernia?
There are certain exercises that put your abdominal wall at an increased risk for developing a weak spot or strain. These exercises aren’t entirely off the table, but you should always proceed with caution and good form.
Heavy lifting; particularly moves that require pushing or pulling
Flexion based abdominal exercises such as sit-ups and crunches
High impact activities such as jumping and running - if your goal is weight loss related, try to stick to lower impact cardio
Anything that requires you to hold your breathe
Coughing or sneezing repeatedly
Over-exerting your abdominals with poor form or improper core activation
Having good core strength has so many potential benefits for your health. And preventing or better managing an abdominal hernia is just one of them. This can translate to a lower risk for needing a hernia surgery as well. Having a clear understanding of what functional core strength looks like can help you feel your best. If you do have a hernia, always consult your doctor for further medical advice if the bulge gets bigger or your symptoms worsen.
JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.
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