Health Misconception #3: A Six-Pack Means A Strong Core
Contributed by Dr Gary Tho December 7, 2017
Many people blame back pain on two things: weak back muscles and weak core muscles. But to eliminate back pain, we should not jump straight into strengthening muscles.
Dr. Gary addresses your body’s pain points in his new book The Pain Free Desk Warrior – Free Yourself From Aches And Pains. Here, he shares an excerpt in hopes that you can start living your life free of pain, fatigue, and illness!
You can also catch up on Health Misconception #1: Knowing The Cause Of Your Pain Can Help You Avoid It. Or misconception #2 Chiropractors Only Strengthen The Backbone
Many people do sit-ups and crunches because they think it will build their core stability. There is a lot of misinformation about the best and worst abs exercises. Many health magazines highlight “new best exercises and variations” almost every month.
For desk warriors sitting for prolonged periods of time, you will end up with weaker lower abdominals. This refers to the abdominal muscles below the navel, particularly the internal oblique and transverse abdominis muscles. Without getting into too much detail, the pelvic floor muscles need to work together to stabilise the pelvis. Though strengthening these muscles do not directly result in a well-defined six-pack, it does fix the unsightly, soft edges around the belt-line.
Unfortunately, many gyms and trainers don’t quite acknowledge this, so regimes of sit-ups, crunches, double leg raises, and the very well-known plank are standard. Sadly, it’s these types of workouts that cause and contribute to back problems.
About 90 percent of my back pain clients report that they either do lots of sit-ups or they can’t anymore because it makes their back worse. Here are the bad six-pack exercises:
1. Sit-Ups And Crunches
Sit-ups and crunches overwork the upper abdominals and the hip flexors, but do nothing for the lower abdominal muscles. And to make things worse, excessive upper abdominal training forces pressure into the pelvis, stretching and weakening the pelvic floor muscles (imagine straining on the toilet).
The second major problem with sit-ups and crunches is that they excessively reinforce poor posture. You are training muscles to strengthen your poor posture position, creating more of what prolonged sitting does through underactivity. This is exactly what desk warriors do not need.
If you ever see a well-built person with the perfect six-pack, you may observe that they are slightly stooped over. Their upper body is pulled slightly forward, which then increases the compression of the spine in the lower back – something that can also cause back pain.
The last problem with sit-ups, crunches, and actually most other abdominal exercises, is that it’s always a contest to do more. There’s always a target number to hit. My next door neighbour frequented the gym four days a week. He said that each training session, he would do at least 400 sit-ups. Would you do 400 bicep curls or 400 squats, four days a week?
It’s not just about the numbers. The more tired you get, the more frantically you’ll push out those last few reps. Because of this poor form, there is tremendous shearing stress and strain placed on your lower back joints and discs.
2. Double Leg Raises
This exercise also overworks the upper abdominals and hip flexors. That’s the reason why your head and shoulders have the tendency to lift off the floor and why the front of your hips ache. It also strains and bears down on the pelvic floor muscles, turning them off and making them weak. Double leg raises require the hip flexors to forcefully pull on the front of the bones in the lower back as they lift your heavy legs. This action massively compresses the bones, joints, and discs in the lower back, and shears them forward.
If the above doesn’t deter you, and you want to keep this exercise as part of your workout, then make sure to keep your low back flat on the floor when you raise your legs.
I personally enjoy doing planks. There are so many variations that can train balance, stability and co-contraction with many muscles of the arms, torso, and legs. However, planks do fall into the worst top three ab exercises.
Firstly, how do you even know you’re in the right position? You can’t lift your pelvis too high, and you can’t let it drop too low.
Don’t let your lower back arch and drop down. So that means your lower back needs to be up, while the pelvis needs to be down. Then activate your shoulder and shoulder blade muscles, and ensure they are stabilised.
Bring your shoulders away from your ears. Elongate your neck and look slightly up, so your spine, from your neck to your tailbone, maintain their neutral curves so there’s neither a decrease or increase in spinal curvature.
Are your fingers, hands, and forearms engaged? What about your ankles, legs, buttock muscles, pelvic floor, and transverse abdominis?
Well if you got that all right, great! However, the nature of the plank exercise requires you to hold a static position, which actually creates a compressive loading of your entire spine. Your muscles have to contract strongly to keep you there, creating a constant compressive force until you release the exercise. When you fatigue, and your back drops lower than it should, it arches too much (hyper-extends) creating more compression and shearing forces on the lower back. Your shoulders also fatigue, losing stability and creating risky strain and compression on the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder.
As you can see, if you don’t have back pain now, you might want to rethink your six-pack regime. Sadly, these exercises can create a bad back from a healthy back – and make a bad back worse.
Get a copy of Dr. Gary’s book ‘The Pain-Free Desk Warrior’ by visiting his shop!