Spoiler Alert: This article exposes some of your most common and favorite ab exercises
Abdominal exercises are a key component of any good training program. Functionally, they are crucial in providing stability throughout the spine as well as connecting the upper and lower extremity during almost every exercise in the gym and during sport specific movement. Aesthetically, being able to see your own abs is a prized possession owned few and strived for by many. Whether you are on the side of the spectrum concerned about the functional benefits, the side that wants to look good with a shirt off, or somewhere in-between, there are plenty of reasons to be targeting the abdominal region during your training.
As far as selling is concerned in the fitness industry, there is no bigger demand than a six pack. This is evident by hundreds if not thousands of products, programs, and diets that promise a six pack as part their selling hook. There is neither a shortage of exercises to target the abs, and while there are great reasons to build a strong core, science says you may not be doing yourself as much good as you’d think. Some may even be experiencing detrimental effects from their abdominal training without even knowing.
To understand why the spine can experience trauma or degeneration from abdominal exercises, we must first understand the purpose of the abdominal muscles and their role in spinal stabilization. Muscles, in general, play one of two roles in the joints of the body. A muscle moves or stabilizes and protects a joint. In the abdomen, the muscles that attach to the spine are first and foremost present for the purpose of stabilizing and protecting the joints of the spine. Although it is true that specific abdominal muscles can rotate, laterally flex, or flex the spine individually, this is NOT their purpose. The abdominal muscles stabilize the spine by working together in their opposing directions of movement to create rigidity to the spine. This is what helps transfer forces between the upper and lower body during movement and keeps the spine from buckling under load. These forces in the front are matched with muscles in the back of the spine to create circumferential (360 degrees) of spinal stability. These muscles must all work together not only to align the pelvis and maintain neutrality of the spine. Without this, or when there is an imbalance, there is a loss of stability and an increase in abnormal forces being placed upon the joints of the spine.
Research shows that a large amount of disc injuries are caused by movements which utilize repetitive flexion and or rotation of the spine. These movements can occur during daily activities, work, or in the case of this article, at the gym. These types of cumulative injuries occur with improper movement at a sub-maximal rate of force. These movements cause micro-trauma to the joint which is capable of healing if given enough time. The typical result, however, is that these movements are not allowed necessary recovery and the mirror-trauma from each repetition compounds until reaching the threshold that is necessary to cause macro-trauma.
Now that we have defined what the body needs to create stability and what movements cause injury, how does this relate to abdominal exercises? Unfortunately, the movements that create positional instability by putting you in a compromised lumbar flexion or rotational position AND also produce high amounts of strain into the lower back are the most common abdominal exercises seen in the gym. These movements include sit-ups, crunches, russian twists, and any other movement that focuses on flexion or unilateral rotation. Furthermore, these movements are often done at high reps, for time, and to fatigue, which furthers the risk of instability and lower back injury. Research done by Stuart McGill says of all of these exercises, sit-ups and crunches or spinal flexion abdominal exercises are the worst and produce the most force in the lower back. Now you may make the argument that “I’ve been doing those kinds of ab exercises for years and haven’t had a back injury.” Awesome! But there are many other equally beneficial abdominal exercises out there that spare the spine and teach your spine to resist motion. Does it really make sense to put unnecessary forces into your spine with a crunch or sit-up? The answer is no.
Furthermore, if you are an individual who happens to have a back injury, some healthcare and fitness professionals may be rightfully identifying your weak core to be an issue. But, if their answer to that is doing a bunch of sit-ups and crunches in your already inflamed and injured spine, don’t be surprised when you don’t see improvement or the condition even worsens.
So what are some good options for training the abdomen? McGill’s variation of the sit-up, the McGill sit-up is a great option for singling out the rectus abdominis. Since the goal again is to create stability in the spine and torso, other exercises such as front and side planks, dead bugs, wall bugs, bird dogs, and any other exercise in which movement is created from the extremities and absorbed or resisted by the abdomen are a great option for developing core strength. This could include medicine ball throws against a wall in which the shoulder and hips are creating forces to accelerate the med ball and then decelerate it as it comes back to them.
I would also recommend to those who like to read and learn to purchase Stuart McGill’s book, Back Mechanic. This book is specifically geared towards educating the general population on proper spinal health and provide ways that you, yourself can help manage a back injury. Some of which we just covered.