Today I'm writing about safe ab exercises: I usually don't write much about sports, exercise or fitness on this blog (other than tae kwon do, rockclimbing, cycling and running) so its about time I write about something... I was reading an article on the New York Times Blogs about exercising your abs. The question posed by the article was "Is Your Ab Workout Hurting Your Back?" I remember doing sit-ups in the past and it absolutely hurt my back. Rather than being peer pressured into doing them I chose to sit out of it. The traditional sit-up exercise may be good for the abdominal muscles but dangerous for the back. The article states the dilemma: "But there’s growing dissent among sports scientists about whether all of this attention to the deep abdominal muscles actually gives you a more powerful core and a stronger back and whether it’s evensafe."
Sit Ups are not a Safe Form of Ab Exercise
Full sit-ups involve the hip flexors, as well as the abdominal muscles. This can cause the back to arch, with the risk of spinal damage. This is a particular risk for individuals with weak abdominal muscles, but also for individuals who train aggressively, exhausting their abdominal muscles in a training session. Even if these risks are avoided, the leverage exerted by the hip flexors risks compression of the lumbar intervertebral discs. Most branches of the US armed forces have ceased using sit-ups in training because of the problems resulting from these factors, which can include direct back damage and referred pain or numbness due to pinching of the spinal cord. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a straight leg sit-up generates approximately 3500 newtons (790 lbf) of force on the spine, and a bent-knee sit-up 3350 newtons (750 lbf), both levels above the 3300 newtons (740 lbf) that correlates highly with lower back injury.
3 Safe Ab Exercises
The article goes on and on about previous research, the growth of the fitness industry being obsessed about core strength. But in summary here is the most important paragraph which describe three safe Ab Exercises:
Instead, he suggests, a core exercise program should emphasize all of the major muscles that girdle the spine, including but not concentrating on the abs. Side plank (lie on your side and raise your upper body) and the “bird dog” (in which, from all fours, you raise an alternate arm and leg) exercise the important muscles embedded along the back and sides of the core. As for the abdominals, no sit-ups, McGill said; they place devastating loads on the disks. An approved crunch begins with you lying down, one knee bent, and hands positioned beneath your lower back for support. “Do not hollow your stomach or press your back against the floor,” McGill says. Gently lift your head and shoulders, hold briefly and relax back down. These three exercises, done regularly, McGill said, can provide well-rounded, thorough core stability. And they avoid the pitfalls of the all-abs core routine. “I see too many people,” McGill told me with a sigh, “who have six-pack abs and a ruined back.”
In summary the three safe ab exercises are:
- Side Plank exercise - on the floor, lie on your side and raise your upper body
- Bird Dog exercise - on the floor on all fours, like a dog, raise your arm and a leg, for example, raise your left arm while raising your right leg off the floor and extend and vice versa
- Crunch Ab exercise (see below)
Safe Ab Exercises: The crunch
Proper starting form is lying face up on the floor with knees bent. The movement begins by curling the shoulders towards the pelvis, with hands placed behind or beside the neck, or crossed over the chest. Using the hands to exert force on the neck can cause injury, so common practice is to avoid placing the hands behind the head itself. The hands can however, form a shelf to support the weight of the head, so that the neck flexor muscles can relax during the movement. So long as the neck remains in an extended position with the neck flexors relaxed, then the hands are not exerting excessive force and it will not cause injury. Crunches are not the same as sit-ups.