Many people spend inordinate amounts of time doing ab exercises, with the misguided notion that they will flatten their belly and protect their back.
Training the abdominals is one of the most misunderstood component of fitness. I’ll cut to the chase and list 5 cold hard facts about the core:
1. Training the abs won’t lead to a ripped or flat midsection. It will do nothing to get rid of that “stubborn body fat”. These muscles are small. Small muscles have a limited capacity to oxidize (burn) fat. These muscles also don’t grow well, so they won’t become big muscles.
2. Doing several abdominal exercises makes fat loss more difficult. The most common reason why people say they have problems getting results with weight loss is that they don’t have enough time to exercise. You need to exercise to lose fat. So if you spend the limited amount of time that you have doing several abdominal exercises, then you are spending less time doing exercises that actually work big muscles and burn fat. Take away the 321 versions of the crunch, focus on proven fat burning exercises, and watch the fat come off.
3. Doing many ab exercises will increase your risk of back pain. Ever see the research in (pick your favorite fitness magazine) that shows the “best ab exercises”? They are all missing a key point, big time.
You see, most research on the abdominal exercises focuses on how much muscle is working. They conclude that the higher the activation of the abs, the better the exercise.
Wrong. A brilliant researcher from Canada, Stuart Mc Gill, and several others, have studied ab exercises in depth, with a different perspective. Rather than focusing only on how much the muscles were activated, they also measured the stress imposed upon the discs, ligaments, and joints of the spine. These are the structures that are involved in back pain.
The results were amazing. Many of the exercises purported to be the “best ab exercises” imposed stress on spinal structures far beyond levels known to cause spinal damage.
Ironic how people are advised to do “protective” exercises that have actually been shown to damage the very structures causing back pain!
4. Strong abdominals do not reduce your risk of back pain.
If they did, then why do so many weightlifters, gymnasts, and football players have back pain? They have abs of steel! The research shows that motor control and endurance of the trunk muscles is correlated with reduced back injury, but strength is not.
5. Sit-ups, crunches, and ab machines are horrible exercises.
Do you know what movements are essential to allow a disc to herniate? Bending and twisting of the spine. Add excessive compression (via muscle force, additional weight, etc) and you have a great shot at damaging your back.
Guess what crunches, sit-ups, and ab machines have in common? Bending and twisting under high compressive loads. No wonder why low back pain is so common.
I could go on and on about this topic, but these points should hopefully shed some light regarding the truths about abdominals.
So what exercises should you do for your core? It depends on your goals.
If you want to lose fat, focus on working big muscles that have a high capacity for calorie burn. This usually involves multi-joint body weight and free weight exercises that use multiple muscles, including your abs! Of course, nutrition is a huge factor as well, and some energy system work in most cases.
If you want to protect your back, focus on adopting proper ergonomics in daily life, learning how to use your torso muscles, and choosing exercises that focus on proper body mechanics, controlling movement of your back and pelvis, and challenging the torso muscles that stabilize your low back without mimicking the very forces known to cause back injury. These things can be challenging to learn initially, but become ingrained habits, like riding a , with sufficient practice and instruction.