Stuart McGill know backs. He's one of the world's foremost authorities on the lower back, advising people with the worst back pain, as well as world-class athletes who want to improve their performance by protecting & strengthening their backs. To read or hear an extensive interview with McGill click here.
If I had an unsolvable back pain problem I would want to drive up to Waterloo, Canada & consult with Dr. McGill. When it comes to biomechanics, he knows how backs work, why they fail us, and how to fix them.
Want to strengthen your back? Want to prevent back pain? Want a strong core?
Ditch the traditional ab workout or crunch. Ditch the sit-up on the exercise ball. It's not helping. Be careful with Pilates.
"Is Your Ab Workout Hurting Your Back?" by Gretchen Reynolds. New York Times June 17, 2009 Gretchen Reynolds
I've never liked abdominal exercises. They've always made my back & neck hurt--and normally my back is just fine. I thought that the post-ab-exercise-achiness-in-my-back-and-neck just meant that my back & neck muscles were weak. That may be--but the traditional abs are bad news. Who knew? Certainly not me! Read Reynolds article to learn more.
So What's the Problem with Sit-ups?
1. According to Dr. Stuart McGill, if you do enough sit-ups you're going to hurt your back. Our backs only have so many bending cycles in them--everyone is different based on genetics--but our backs are like wire coat hangers.
Bend that coat hanger back & forth so many times and it's going to weaken & finally break.
Since we only have so many bending cycles available in our backs (a sobering thought), why would anyone want to use them up with something silly like a sit-up? And as McGill demonstrates in the video, the traditional sit-up is a great way to cause discs to bulge, herniate & impinge on nerves. According to McGill, "If you did 100's of sit-ups, your back would break before the spine could be trained to a high level!"
2. Lab tests have shown that the traditional sit-up or crunch "greatly reduces the load that the spine can bear without injury when subjects pull in their belly buttons", press their backs against the floor or an exercise ball, deeply hollowing out their backs.
3. Sit-ups place a "devastating load on the disks". It's very possible to have 6-pack abs, and a ruined back.
4. The entire core--the muscles & connective tissue surrounding and holding the spine in place--must be strengthened and balanced. To concentrate solely on the abs destabilizes the spine, pulling it out of alignment. If the core is strong & stable, the spine remains upright & it can bear heavy loads while the body swivels around it.
There is a better way. Watch McGill's video & in 2 minutes you'll have the basics with four easy-to-do exercises you can do daily. They strengthen and stabilize the core, exercising the "important muscles embedded along the back and sides of the core."
1. A safe effective modified lumbar supported abdominal curl.
2. Stir-the-pot. A plank-like exercise done on an exercise ball for strength & stability.
3. Side bridge
4. Bird Dog - with 3 ways to increase the challenge.
I literally brought my laptop down to the floor to make sure I got these exercises right--and watched them about 5 times until I understood the correct form. They're easy...but the Bird Dog variations took a while for me to coordinate. I'm a slow learner! I definitely plan on incorporating these quick exercises into my daily routine.
McGill's Opinion About Pilates
Gretchen Reynolds asked Dr. Stuart McGill to talk a bit more about Pilates and core workouts.
He said, “Pilates is fine for some people and very troublesome for others. It’s important that each person get an expert assessment to determine who fits in each category, the specific types of Pilates that would be best, the set and rep design to the intervals, etc.”
From the Times of London. "Do Back Exercises Work?" April 11, 2009 Read the article here.
A paper published recently (click here Br J Sports Med 42:930-31, 2008. Allison & Morris) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that the benefits of core-stability workouts (that concentrate solely on the transverse abdominals) have been wildly overplayed. The evidence is just not there.
They cast doubt on the notion that back pain is linked to "less than optimal core stability" and suggest that it is linked to poor trunk rotation and strength instead.
If you hollow in your muscles--as in bringing your navel to your spine--you bring the muscles much closer to the spine and you effectively reduce the stability of the back.
When you lift something or exercise, rather than pulling in from the navel to spine you should brace all the abdominal muscles. Bracing is stiffening the abdominal wall. Imagine that you are going to be hit in the stomach. The instinctive reaction is "bracing".
A back support to use if you sit long hours at work. Sitting long hours is a key reason for lower back pain. "Why Sitting In A Chair Hurts Your Back. What You Can Do To Prevent Back Pain"
British Journal of Sports Medicine 42:930-931, 2008 Transversus abdominis and core stability: has the pendulum swung? Allison, G.T., Morris, S.L.
***Just came across Dr. Thomas Kerr's post . Kerr is a chiropractor and a big fan of McGill's work. He does an excellent job of explaining why a sit-up or crunch is bad news. It's always good to hear the same thing said in a different way.