Most of us are familiar with typical situps and crunches. These movements have been the primary abdominal exercises for the last few decades. Why? Because they can be done anytime, anywhere, with little focus. They are easy to “progress” by simply doing more. Finally, they leave the stomach sore. All these things sound pretty good, right?
Unfortunately, situps are one of the worst exercises for abdominal strength and stability!
The main problem with situps is that they are performed in a posture that places a great deal of stress on the spine. Unnecessary curving of the spine may damage the discs in the back and produce wear-and-tear on the vertebrae. We already tend to hunch in front of computers, driving cars, and carrying heavy objects – why exacerbate this rounded posture during exercise too?
Another problem is that poorly performed situps, involving a bouncing motion and a pull from the legs, will only target one of many “core” muscles– the rectus abdominis. The hip flexors in the front of the thighs and hips, along with upper body muscles, will assist in the situp motion, taking focus away from the core. It is also very easy to “cheat” this exercise by relying upon momentum or a bounce off the ground.
Finally, situps are not a functionally specific movement. Very rarely in life do we have to fold our bodies forward at the hips. Alternatively, we do have to brace with all the muscles in our core when lifting an unwieldy object or even stepping down stairs.
Now that we know situps place undue stress on the back, don’t effectively work all the core muscles, and are not a functional movement, let’s look at some alternatives.
The single best exercise to learn is a “plank”. Start by laying facedown on the floor with the forearms and toes in contact with the ground. Tighten through the core, or think about drawing the bellybutton towards the lower back, to raise the hips off the ground until your back is straight. Hold this position for 3 seconds before slowly lowering the hips back to the ground. Perform for 10 repetitions. As these become easier, extend the time and eventually add more motion.
Another excellent movement is known as “dead bugs”. For this exercise, lay on your back, bring your arms and legs straight up toward the ceiling, and bend the knees to 90 degrees. While maintaining contact between the lower back and the ground, extend your right leg toward the ground and left arm overhead. Pause just before the limb touches the ground and fully exhale. Bring both limbs back up to the starting position and alternate sides. The most important parts of this exercise are making sure the lower back does not arch, and that you don’t forcibly hold your breath in the bottom position. Both these errors will result in lessened activation of the core muscles.
These exercises will target the deep core muscles, specifically the transverse abdominals and obliques, more effectively than situps. And, as previously mentioned, we’ll be working the core while lengthening the spine, ensuring better posture.
I hope this post provides some insight into how best strengthen the core, thereby relieving back pain while improving posture and balance. Please let me know if you’d like more exercise ideas or would like me to review the efficacy of other movements.
As always, thanks for reading!
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