Just Getting Started, Rehabbing an Injury, Uncategorized

Are Your Ab Exercises Hurting Your Back?

Ab exercises - side plank, cat/camel, bird dog and more

For those of you who have experienced back pain, you know exactly how debilitating it can be. Even the most simple of daily tasks can bring you to your knees and make your life pretty miserable. Let’s take a look and see what ab exercises are helping and which are not.
To help prevent the onset of back pain/injuries, we’ve often been told we need to strengthen our abs by doing ab exercises. But what if I told you that your abdominal strengthening routine could be a major contributor to your back? You think you’re doing all the right things when, in fact, you could be setting yourself up for a potential problem.
Despite what you may see on social media or in infomercials, all ab exercises are not created equal. In fact, if you’re still incorporating outdated exercises such as sit-ups, crunches and leg raises, it’s time to re-evaluate your routine and make some serious changes!
While the idea of losing belly fat and developing a set of 6 pack abs is great, people need to better understand why they need to train their abdominal area and how to properly do it.
Let’s take a look at how you can do this…..

More Than Just Abs

The first thing we need to understand is that your abs are just a part of what you need to be focusing on when it comes to preventing and/or treating back pain. While everyone loves the idea of nicely toned abs, they are just part of the equation.
Your “core” is where it’s at when it comes to talking about building a strong and stable mid-section. The core can be defined as all of the muscles and connective tissue that surrounds your spine. Basically, it’s what holds you upright.
Core strengthening exercises will ensure you’re developing all of the muscles as opposed to only one section (such as your abs). In fact, focusing on just the abs can do more harm than good by destabilizing the entire core area and opening yourself up to a potential back injury.
To get a little more specific on the break-down of the core, there are 3 main muscle groups that help support the spine:

  • Obliques: These muscles are used to help support the spine when we are upright and also help to rotate the spine as well as aid in maintaining a proper posture.
  • Flexors: This muscle group is responsible for controlling the lower spine and provides support to the spine from the front.
  • Extensors: These muscles are used to strengthen the back and are vital when we are standing and lifting.

Looking at these three areas, it should be clear that you need to address the core as a whole when incorporating abdominal and low back exercises into your workout routine.

Your Ab Exercises

When it comes to choosing the right exercises for your core routine, you’ll want to focus on those that strengthen the abdominal muscles without placing any pressure on our back and spine. They should emphasize a good balance that involves the 3 muscle groups above.
Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the leading back experts in the fitness field, has developed a list of 4 exercises that he recommends for building a strong, stable core. Try out these ab exercises:

  • Cat-Camel

    Cat-Camel Ab Exercises

On your hands and knees, slowly alternate between arching and rounding your back so that all three sections of your spine – lumbar (lower), thoracic (middle) and cervical (upper) – extend together and then flex together. Do this slowly and gently, and don’t force it. One cycle will take three to four seconds.
Repeat stretch five or six times.

  • Side Plank

Ab exercise - Side Plank
Begin on your side, resting with forearm perpendicular to the body and hip resting on the ground. Elbow should be under the shoulder, with opposite hand resting on the opposite hip.
Engage the core by bracing the abdominal area. Press the elbow into the floor, lifting the hips off the ground until the body forms a straight line from head to toe. This straight line should be consistent when viewed from the front as well as from the side.
Hold this position for 30 seconds before repeating on opposite side.

  • Bird Dog

Ab exercise- bird-dog
Begin in a quadruped position (all 4’s), with hands under shoulders and knees under hips. It is very important to start with bracing the abdominal area in order to ensure proper form.
With core engaged, maintain pelvis and torso in their neutral position and slowly raise one arm straight forward. Pelvis and shoulders should not rock to either side. Arm should only come up to parallel with the floor.
Once arm extension can be performed with proper form, you can progress to leg extension of
the opposite leg. Always engage the core first, bringing the arm and leg out to parallel with the
Perform six 10 second holds on each side.

  • The McGill Curl-Up

Ab exericse - McGrill Curl
Lie on your back on the floor. Bend one leg and leave other one extended straight and flat.
Place your palms underneath the natural arch of your lower back to preserve the curve. Depending on the size of your arch you can put one hand on top of the other or simply clasp your hands together.
Slowly raise your chest, shoulders and head as a one unit off the floor without bending your lower back. Imagine that your abdominal muscles are shortening and they are pulling your shoulders off the floor. The range of motion is short – you don’t have to come too far off the floor.
Keep the position for couple of seconds while breathing deeply. Then slowly return to the starting position. Switch feet and repeat on the other side.
Perform six 3-6 second holds on each side.
By adding the above exercises into your routine today, you’re sure to prevent a back injury catastrophe tomorrow!
About the writer: Ken Grall is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and owns and operates an Edge Fitness in Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Ken.



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