Training Your Abs is Only Making Your Back Pain Worse
By VIDA Master Trainer
Erik Strouse, MS
Hi VIDA Members. Back pain is one of the most widespread and prevalent health issues in the US. The truth is, because we sit down in chairs all day we are likely to experience it on some level. This is due to the forward bend in the spine that is often created that over time causes repetitive compression to the intervertebral discs. This will cause potential pain because doing this long and often enough will start to wear them down, create a bulge, or cause them to break. It is common for people to combat this back pain by building a “stronger core”.
Let’s say that you do one of the best things for your back in the workforce to mitigate back pain and transition to a standing desk at work, your methods of building your core strength might be voiding out your efforts. In other words, most people are potentially causing damage to their spines every single day by performing your most common ab exercises. Things like crunches, sit-ups, oblique crunches, leg lifts, and so one are absolutely damaging to the spine for most people. But how is this the case? How is targeting the abs, obliques, and lower back with movements designed to strengthen posing an issue? Continue reading!
Anatomically speaking, the spine is BEST designed to take loads in a vertical fashion. So, it is best designed to take a load straight down, from top to bottom, through the ground. It is NOT designed well to take loads in ANY OTHER DIRECTION. This means bending the spine, rotating the spine, and rotating and bending at the same time can be incredibly dangerous when LOADED. That is not to say you cannot do these things without any weight on the body, because that would be wrong. It can handle these movements, generally speaking, when dealing with your own body weight and natural movement. Here’s the thing… Ab exercises are NOT natural, and what I just explained as potentially damaging to the spine is occurring with just about every traditional ab exercise performed and taught in the fitness industry whether you use an external weight or not.
Think of it like this: when you perform any leg exercise such as a squat or deadlift, it is universally known that you need to keep your spine straight to prevent injury. This is taught EVERYWHERE in the world, and proves accurate when people break away from this technique under high loads and end up with a back injury. The reality is that traditional ab work like mentioned above actually mimics the very compressive forces you are trying to avoid when doing those leg exercises even if you do not use an external weight to load the body! (See the picture to get an idea of what is happening) You compress the spine forcefully to engage the targeted core muscle group with each rep, loaded or unloaded, and often push to absolute muscle failure. This done repetitively over time will start to wear the discs out, and thus potentially lead to pain, arthritis, or other various bone and disc disorders often seen in our later stages of life. Or, it can down right cause a slipped or bulged disc, or even something like nerve impingement.
Not all traditional core exercises are incredibly hazardous, however. Planks are one of the most performed ab exercises that are actually beneficial and safe if performed correctly. But, the key word is “correctly”. That means the spine should look EXACTLY the same as when standing upright (see picture 2). Your hips should not be elevated or sagging! So, long story short, to build strength in that spine, and to reduce back pain without adding to the problem, learn the correct ways to go about planking and explore other great options such as movement training that engages the “core” in ways that are natural to our regular movement patterns. I specialize in this type of training and can guarantee that you will gain a stronger, healthier core, as well as alleviate much of the back pain you may be experiencing!! Send me an email should you have any questions! email@example.com