Are Your Ab Exercises Hurting Your Back? And Safe Core Exercises To Do Instead

Published:  08/16/2013

I have been a huge fan of Dr. McGill for years now. Dr. Stuart M. McGill is a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo and renowned back pain researcher. He knows more about training abs and backs safely than anyone.

According to Dr. Stuart McGill, doing sit-ups will hurt your back over time. He says our backs only have so many bending cycles in them. Our backs are like wire coat hangers. Bend that coat hanger back and forth so many times and it's going to weaken & finally break. Sit-ups place a "devastating load on the disks".  Inside each disk is a mucus-like nucleus. If you keep flexing your spine and bending the disk over and over again, that nucleus slowly breaks the layers and causes a disk bulge, or a disk herniation.  Every time we bend it the discs are one repetition closer to damaging the disk. It's very possible to have six pack abs, and a ruined back.

Dr. McGill thinks the traditional sit-up is a great way to cause discs to bulge, herniate and impinge on nerves around the spine. The "full flex" movment, the "crunch" part of situp, puts an unhealthy strain on your back at its weakest point. The section with the most nerves in the spine is the part that bends and strains during a sit-up. The end result is people end up with so much pain and stiffness that it's difficult to tie one's shoes or bend down to pick up something off the ground.

Scroll to the bottom for video instructions for some core exercises I recommend that will strengthen your core without potentially harming it!

And for a list of links to all my core exercise videos go here.

Plus, doing a sit-up doesn't train your ab and core muscles to do the job for which they were designed: keeping your spine straight and secure and providing power for your movements. In everyday life the abdominal muscles are braces. When doing any athletic movement, even opening a door or vacuuming, the spine is in a neutral posture, not flexed, and the abdominal muscles are contracted to brace the spine.

It's a mistake to focus your exercise selection solely on the abs because that destabilizes the spine, pulling it out of alignment. It's important to have strong abs, but strong abdominals are not the only thing. The entire core (the muscles and connective tissue surrounding and holding the spine in place) must be strengthened and balanced. Working all of these muscle groups of the core: the pelvis, back, hips and abdomen, is essential to both back health and general athleticism.

If the core is strong and stable, the spine remains upright and it can bear heavy loads while the body swivels around it.

The best way to work your core and prevent hurting your back is to work your midsection by doing movements that challenge the muscles to perform the way they are designed and expected to work in real life as discussed here when shoveling, and not to train muscles in isolation. This will help you create great-looking abs but also increase your athleticism or overall strength. There are many exercises that accomplish this.

Consider the pushup. Not usually thought of as a great ab move, but the pushup forces you to work many muscles at once; your core muscles to stabilize your trunk as your arms and back work to move the body up and down. It is a full body challenge! It works the abdominals, front of your legs, your arms and your back. That is how you use those muscles in real life. If you are doing pushups and other chest strength training, make sure you are also doing strength training exercises for your back. Not doing so can lead to muscular imbalances and injury.

Like the pushup, the best exercises for back health and a firmer stomach are ones that work your abs while holding your spine straight. Woodchoppers (for rotational strength), Bridges, Bird Dogs, McGill Curl-ups, Single Leg Lifts lying on your back, One Leg Overhead Dumbbell Side Bends (for balance), Planks, Side Plank and the Stir-the-pot Plank are examples of effective and safe exercises. These exercises, by working your entire abdominal muscle complex, will build strength in your abs and prevent back pain.

Here are some others to build stability and strength in a safe manner! Let me know which are your favorites!

Categories:   Fitness 

Tags:   #healthyhabits

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