Is your ab workout working for you working or working you over?
The title is paraphrased from an interview with professor Stuart McGill of the University of Waterloo in Ontario Canada. McGill is one of the most notable researchers in spinal bio-mechanics, human performance, and lower back pain. It refers to the traditional use of sit ups, crunches etc and how they are performed in a way that flexes the lumbar spine. Very commonly fitness enthusiasts will perform scores or even hundreds of repetitions of the sit up or crunch. Sure it works the abdominal muscles but it can damage the discs in the lower back leading to “six pack abs and a wrecked lower back”.
McGill theorizes this repetitive bending of the spine equates to unnecessary wear and tear of the lumbar discs. In a healthy back this strain might go unnoticed but for a person with a history of back problems it is often not tolerated well. The disc is like a coat hanger wire; there are only so many times you can bend it in a lifetime before it breaks down, even fewer if it is already damaged.
The truth is there is no need to do sit ups. If sit ups are painful, simply avoiding exercise in this area IS NOT the solution. There are many exercises that challenge the core muscles of the trunk (rectus abdominus, transverse abdominus and obliques) and improve spinal strength, coordination and endurance.
One key is keeping the spine in neutral (a slight forward bowing of the spine) while exercising this area. Believe it or not challenging spinal exercises can be accomplished with little movement of the spine! ( Don’t Believe me? watch the video below!)
The video below features professor McGill. It is from the New York times and features demonstrations of the “roll up”, “pointing dog” and side plank and “stir the pot” exercises. The “stir the pot” exercise is a progression from a standard front plank exercise pictured below the video.
The plank and side plank can both be preformed from the knees and progressed from there. There are lots of exercises that could be done but lets keep it simple work with these 3-4 and progress from there.