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Precision Abdominal Training
It's almost impossible to turn on the television or open a magazine without being barraged by advertisements for washboard abs, the best abdominal training machine ever designed or a 'magic' pill specifically designed to remove fat from problem areas. In my previous articles I alluded to the fact that most machines do not work, in fact they actually can increase the risk of injury. Many of the most common machines and devices that are designed to 'scientifically' target the abs actually place up to 1000 lbs. of compressive forces on the spine.
People have been told that they should perform sit ups and other flexion (crunch) exercises with the knees bent to disable the hip flexors (psoas). Many have hypothesized that this reduces compressive load on the lower back by disabling psoas or by changing the line of action of the psoas. There is no debate as to whether psoas is shortened with the hip flexed, but is there a reduction in load to spine with the legs bent? McGill examined 12 young men and observed no major difference in lumbar load as the result of bending the knees. He measured the compressive loads to be in excess of 3000 N. This definitely raises the issue of safety. Certainly anyone with low back injury or risk of re-injury would be wise to avoid the bent knee sit up.
Everyone has performed the crunch at some time, many have not only performed the crunch, but have performed hundreds of thousands or more of them. Through emg studies it has been proven that this exercise directly targets the rectus abdominus or the front of the abdominal wall. However, in lab studies, the most reliable way to injure disks was to expose them to repetitive end range flexion in a cyclic manner. This means that the thousands of crunches you do in any strange variety of directions, with the feet fixed or not, holding weights or body weight, places a serious and very dangerous damaging force on the disks of the spine. A review of the literature reveals that it is likely that the disk must be bent to full end range of motion to be herniated, and that the risk is higher with repeated loading.[8,9] Maybe the crunch is not as good as most would have you believe.
Another dinosaur that will not die is the leg raise, be it lying on your back, seated on a bench or suspended from the roman chair. Data indicates that the main muscle activated in this exercise is the psoas, not the muscles of the abdominal wall. The psoas muscles main role in this motion is as a hip flexor, not an abdominal or trunk flexor. Almost all of us suffer from tight hip flexors and weak lower abs, all this exercise will accomplish is further tightening the psoas and weakening the lower abdominal wall. So why would anyone select the straight leg raise to improve core stability when this exercise mostly challenges psoas ( hip flexor) which appears to play no role in the stability process of the spine / core and at the same time applies extremely high loads to the spine?. So what are the best safest exercises for the abs that also strengthen the core and build spine stability? Believe me when I tell you that to perform these safe and efficient exercises that activate the core, abdominal and spinal muscles no equipment is required, all you need is your body and the floor. The first place to start is the Plank aka. Prone bridge. Perform this exercise like a push up only on your forearms.
? Position yourself face down (prone) on your toes and forearms.
? Brace your abdominals, and retract the cervical spine.
? Maintain the plank 2 position for as long as you can squeeze your glutes.
? Keep the glute muscles engaged and legs straight throughout the exercise.
? When you can no longer fire the glutes, rest and repeat.
The second exercise is the lateral plank or Side Bridge.
? Position yourself laying on your side, propped on the foot and elbow. (frontal plane)
? Maintain a ridged body alignment with proper head position.
? Brace your abdominals, and maintain spinal alignment.
? Raise your torso up off the floor, hold and repeat. Continue on the opposite side.
? Keep the glute muscles engaged throughout the exercise.
The final exercise to strengthen the abs, core and spine is more of a continuum than anything else. The abdominal brace. Every exercise you perform, ever, should be preceded by an abdominal brace; this brace should be held throughout the exercise. The brace is a foreign concept for many since for years we were taught to draw the abs in. Research has clearly shown that drawing the abs in is not effective, bracing fires all the abdominal musculature as well as lumbar co-contraction.
Control of movement is the key to re-educating the lower abdominal wall and allowing the deep pelvic stabilizers to fire efficiently. This progression begins with mastering the abdominal contraction. The key is isolating the muscles of the abdominal wall. Place your fingers on your belly button to feel this contraction. Pay strict attention to NOT allowing the use of the legs, hip flexors or glutes. Typically the body will want to compensate (a.k.a. cheat) to achieve these movements; you must be diligent to not let this happen. To begin the progression lay on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor, place your hands behind your head. Take a breath in and while slowly exhaling begin to push your belly button down toward your hips. Imagine flexing your bicep, this is the same pattern as flexing your abs. Another way to imagine the contraction is to imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach, just before you are hit brace you abs. The contraction is very slow to develop and never forceful so the legs do not help. Continue the contraction until the lower back is in slight contact with the floor and you can breathe while not straining or feeling tension in the neck, chest, shoulders or legs. For most people this is not easy.
Practice bracing with all activities you do, sitting, walking and definitely while exercising. Over time your abdominal endurance will increase and the co-contraction between your abdomen and thoraco-lumbar spine will become much more efficient. The more efficient the contractions and communication throughout the body the more efficient your exercises will be.
7. Santaguida L, McGill Sm. The psoas major muscle: a three dimensional mechanical modeling study with respect to the spine based on MRI measurement. J Biomech 1995; 128(3):339-345.
8. McGill SM. The mechanics of torso flexion: situps and standing dynamic flexion manoeuvres. Clinical Biomechanics 1995; 10(4):184-192.
9. McGill SM: A myoelectrically based dynamic 3-D model to predict loads on lumbar spine tissues during lateral bending. J Biomech.
10. Cholewicki J, McGill SM: Mechanical stability of the in vivo lumbar spine: Implications for injury and chronic low back pain. Clin Biomech 11(1):1, 1996.
11. McGill SM: A revised anatomical model of the abdominal musculature for torso flexion efforts. J Biomech 29(7):973. 1996.
Bryan Fass, BA, ATCL, CSCS, NREMT-P
Bryan Fass holds a bachelors in sports medicine, is a Certified / Licensed Athletic Trainer, Nationally Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Nationally Registered Paramedic. Bryan is also a highly skilled soft tissue and Myofascial Release therapist, And has over 10 years of experience in clinical and fitness settings. Specialties in Spine and postural re-education.
Precision Fitness is an advanced personal fitness, corrective exercise, post-rehabilitation, and sports performance facility with locations in Cornelius and Mooresville.
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