The good and bad of the six pack for your back
There is a lots of misinformation about best and the worst abs exercises. Here's the gen. Gymnasiums take note.
Researchers tell us that people who sit for long periods develop weaker lower abdominals. This means the abdominal wall below navel level – particularly the internal oblique muscles and transversus abdominis – is under-active, giving an unsightly soft, pouchy underbelly below the belt-line.
The gym culture is guilty of favouring sit ups, crunches, the plank and the disastrous double-leg lifts. Sadly, these sorts of abdominal workouts cause back problems - even if you didn't have a back problem to start with.
The wrong abs exercises cause havoc by over-working the upper abdominals and the hip flexors and under-working the lower abdominals and pubococcygeus (PC) muscle of the pelvic floor.
Excessive upper abdominal exercising bears down on the pelvic floor, stretching it and weakening it, and making it less competent in its roles of both sphincter control and dynamic abdominal support. A weaker pelvic floor can also lead to prolapse. Conversely, the best abs exercises recruit the lower abdominals, below navel level and also the all-important PC muscle.
Another major disadvantage of massive abdominal strengthening is that over-active upper abdominals pull the upper body forward, in front of the line of gravity. In so doing, they create a slightly stooped posture that increases loading of the spinal base.
You may recall the typical stance of a gym junkie, proudly sporting a six-pack, but also trapped in a sort of gorilla stoop, elbows bent out at the sides - and still, alas, a hint of that hated pot belly!
Crunches are one of the worst abs exercises and they are used everywhere, from gymnasiums to modest get-fit binges at home. They reinforce, through hyper-activity, exactly what prolonged sitting-and-working does through under-activity. A get-fit regime should do the very opposite for a bowed-over skeleton! The crunches shown below are exactly the exercise that most longterm sitters need to avoid.
Crunches are one of the worst abs exercises. They restrict the excursion of the diaphragm and weaken the pelvic floor
Sit Ups are similar to crunches as another worst abs exercise. Typically, people tend to get into the racket of end-scoring with sit ups; setting a target (I routinely hear of 400 in a session) and getting the number done, come what may. As they get more tired they also get more frantic and slap-dash as they throw themselves into the last batch on the home straight. This can cause scary shearing strains across the high lumbar segments in particular.
Over-activity of the big players means the contribution from the subtler, more fine-tuning and controlling muscles underneath is inhibited. And I’m sorry to say, it’s very common to hear of people putting their 'back out' by doing sit ups.
It's easy to get into 'end-scoring' getting the number done with this particular worst abs exercise
Excessive abdominal work, particularly if it involves holding the breath, will increase the bearing down pressure that weakens the pelvic floor. It is perhaps for this reason that 75% of elite athletes suffer from stress incontinence!
Excessively cinching the belly in weakens the pelvic floor
Double leg lifts are another of the worst abs exercises. They can create a bad back from a healthy back and make a bad back worse. The increased discomfort is caused by the powerful help flexor muscles (psoas) pulling on the front of the lumbar vertebrae as they lift the hugely heavy legs. It compresses the lumbar segments, and shears them forward, with massive force. It usually feels warily uncomfortable as you do it.
If you're fit anyway - with no hint of back trouble - and you're determined to keep this exercise then make sure to keep your low back pressed firmly into the floor, in a lumbar rounding-out action, and keep it there as you raise the legs.
Double legs lifts are another of the worst abs exercises
The reason double leg lifts are so bad is that they cause compression and shear of the lumbar segments through the action of the hip flexor muscles psoas (although, in truth, this diagram above would show it better the other say up - as in lying on the back to lift the legs!).
The Plank is totally spine compressing!
The Plank is the final worst abs exercise if you have a bad back. (It has many derivative exercises using the Fit ball). The effect of the plank is totally compressing, in the way you can pick up a horizontal line of books if you press in hard enough at either end. Press ups do similar things to the spine.
There's a strong correlation with the increased incidence of breathing problems – asthma, blocked nose, sleep apnoea and even panic attacks – and the obsession with keeping the belly cinched in. Breathing difficulties may also be related to weak pelvic floors.
Free function of the diaphragm is impaired by over-activity of the upper abdominals. The diaphragm is the flange-like breathing muscle that separates the thoracic from the abdominal cavity. To activate an in-breath this huge dome-shaped muscle contracts and flattens. As it descends into the abdomen - rather like drawing down a syringe - it pulls air in through your nose. The bases of the lungs inflating with air pushes your belly out.
If you are madly trying to hold your belly in you are inhibiting the downward excursion of your diaphragm and perforce you take a shallower breath. If your upper abdominals have actually become adaptively shortened through over-use, then you don’t even have to hold your belly in because your abdominal wall has shrunk and is in anyway.
(And he's a mouth breather too!)
A new science is dawning on breathing disorders related to 'mouth breathing' and using the accessory muscles of respiration (the neck) instead of the diaphragm. This is particularly evident in children, where it is thought that diet and food additives also contribute to allergies, which in turn are potentiated by bad breathing habits.
Closing your mouth to breathe makes your diaphragm 'work for it' to pull air in through the nose and this keeps your abdominal muscles and your pelvic floor stronger and in better shape. Conversely, a stronger pelvic floor and abdominal musculature makes your diaphragm more efficient and your breathing better.
So now you know what abdominal exercises you shouldn't do with a bad back. Let's see what the Best Abs Exercises are. Although perhaps more subtle in-the-doing, they are highly efficient, particularly at strengthening the deep and intermediate layers of the abdominal musculature that hold in the lower belly without stooping you over, or weakening the pelvic floor.
Similar, but different, is this piece on Best Lower Abs Exercises. Getting fit or get-your-back-better binges are often more a matter of 'doing something' than thoughtful care of what your'e doing. Again, if you're of a mind to do something pro-active it's important to get the very best from the best exercises, not nearly the best from near-enough regimes riddled with un-corrected flaws.
Here is a more in-depth appraisal of the role of transversus abdominis muscle and the fad of core stability training. You'll read here that we all need a stronger abdominal wall, but no one muscle in preference to the rest.
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