Looking Good (for a mom)

has been moved to new address


You will be automatically routed to the new site...please update your bookmarks.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back hurting? Fix your ab workout!

I have to admit, I've been on a bit of a tirade lately about "conventional wisdom." There are so many times I've heard people give health and fitness advice to others, and the advice is either either completely false, possibly true but there's no research to support it, or the research that supports it is under debate. Yet, thanks to news articles that share the interesting conclusions of scientists, but hold back the boring details (whether the conclusions are based on research or conjecture, how the study - if any - was conducted, what peer reviewers of the study thought about the conclusions), everyone from my 10 year-old neighbor to a Personal Trainer at one of the local gyms will repeat the "sound bytes" from the article ad naseum.

That's why it's so refreshing sometimes to read an article that defies conventional wisdom. While browsing the New York Times, I came across an article on Tara Parker-Pope's blog on health, Well. The article, entitled "Is Your Ab Workout Hurting Your Back?" was written by Gretchen Reynolds, a regular contributor to the blog.

You can (and should) read it for yourself, but in the article, Ms. Reynolds explains how, following the theories of prominent researchers (Paul Hodges and Carolyn Richardson) in the 1990's, we came to be told to pull our belly button towards our spine during exercises, or to push our back flat on the mat while doing lying crunches. Now, sports scientists are starting to challenge this "conventional wisdom" as well. Ms. Reynolds references an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that asserted some of the findings from that original Australian study might be wrong. Never one to take a reporter's opinion about what an article says, I went in search and found it for myself. It's called "Transversus abdominis and core stability: has the pendulum swung?" and was published in November 2008 by G.T. Allison and S.L. Morris. If you want a sound byte, here's a good one: "Such an inference – that altered timing of the transversus abdominis leads to poor core stability – is popular in the literature but on further inspection fundamental evidence is lacking. "

And that's just it! An idea might be popular, but that certainly doesn't make it true. A few weeks ago, I attended an introductory Kettlebell Clinic held by Randy Hauer, RKC Team Leader and Olympic Lifting Coach. (You can find Randy at KATAStrength Blog.) Randy is no joke - he's a smart man who could out-lift most guys half his age. His approach to training is very methodical - rather than having you jump out of the gate and go straight to lifting, he focuses very much on first making sure you understand the basics of proper technique.

During the clinic (well before either he or I read this article), Randy demonstrated the difference in your core strength when you draw your navel in towards your spine, and when you create a straight "shield" with your abdominals. For the demonstration, Randy tried to knock me over by pushing on my upper back. The first time, my navel was drawn in towards my spine, and I went over easily. The second time, I strengthened my abdominal wall, much like I would if I were bracing for a punch. When Randy tried to push me over, I didn't even budge. (In fact, much to my chagrin, Randy called me "Ab-Zilla!")

You can try this for yourself and see the results. Even if you don't have a partner, just watch yourself in the mirror. When you draw your navel in towards your spine, you round over, weakening your stance. When you create an abdominal shield, you naturally stand straight and tall.

So how can you apply this in your abdominal workouts? Well, as I've said before, the secret to great abs is NOT sit-ups. According to Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, sit-ups place devastating loads on the spinal disks. Here are a few tips on things NOT to do, as well as a few things TO do for a great, core-strengthening workout:
  • DON'T do sit-ups (I can't say it enough).
  • DON'T hollow your stomach or press your back against the floor in any exercise.
  • DO brace your abdominals to support your core during exercises.
  • DO focus your workout on all of the muscles around your spine, not just the abs.
  • DO include exercises that don't require spine flexion, like planks and side planks.
  • DO consider including full-body exercises like squats and deadlifts, while stabilizing your torso (thereby strengthening your core).

So the next time your workout partner suggests you lie down and do 50 sit-ups, show them what you've learned, and spent a minute doing the plank exercise instead! Your back will thank you.


  1. Excellent info. I'm lucky that when I bumbled into Pilates a few months ago, I happened upon a contemporary studio (neutral spine, modern sports medicine) instead of classical (hollow stomach, flat back). I suspect that if I'd tried to "fix" my lower back pain using that weird scooped flat-back position, I'd have been crippled for life.

  2. Sounds like you lucked out! Unfortunately, there are so many people who aren't so lucky!

    By the way, thanks to your comment, I've started reading your blog. I'm really enjoying it!