There has been a great deal of buzz about protecting your back by working your abdominal and core muscles.
- Suppose you do a lot of crunches. Can just doing the basic forward crunch help?
- Perhaps you have been hearing a lot about the role of your transverse abdominus muscle (the one so often put on center stage in Pilates) for spine health. Is this true?
- Or, suppose you don’t work your abdominals very much and you are wondering if just sucking in your abs would help.
First of all, it turns out that doing the classic crunch can strengthen your abdominals in ways that can help keep your back healthy. When you “crunch” forward you are working the muscle that runs up the front of your abdomen, the rectus abdominus. This exercise also works the muscles that wrap around the sides of your trunk (internal and external obliques).
The rectus abdominus muscle can provide some stability for your spine, but your oblique muscles are the winners when it comes to helping your spine stay strong. These are the ones that help you with trunk rotation and sideways motion. Because they wrap around your sides to the back, the oblique muscles (especially the internal ones) are closely associated with the connective tissue of some important muscles that support your spine. When your obliques are strong, that helps those spinal muscles to provide optimal support. The classic crunch does work the obliques, but doing an exercise that includes rotation or side motion will be more directly related to their true function.
Before we get to a good way to work those muscles on your sides, a word about the other muscle that I mentioned above, the transverse abdominus (TA for short). This is a deep muscle that acts like a corset that wraps around your mid section. Its job is to support the organs inside your abdomen. It does not produce much motion, but it is activated when you press your naval back toward your spine (it also braces when you sneeze or strain to go to the bathroom). Because of the support it provides, the TA is a very important spine stabilizer.
Let me give you a little more insight into this, and into sucking in your belly, which is related.
Investigations have shown that the TA activates before many actions requiring coordination of movement, helping to brace the spine before anything happens.
Time and again, however, it has been discovered that when people have low back pain, the TA does NOT activate first. This means that the all-important stability provided has been lost. If you have ever been in physical therapy for low back pain, probably one of the first things they do is to try to re-establish that early contraction to get the TA working for you again.
You are strengthening the TA when you are standing around sucking in your stomach. But you need to be in good alignment (stand tall) and to draw your naval back toward your spine. Hollowing in your belly is not the same thing. You will know you are drawing in correctly if you are not flexing forward at all, and the curve in your spine in your low back stays the same or gets only slightly less.
Enough talk. Here is an exercise that can help you work your obliques and TA at the same time. Its called the Hip Roll.
Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor, arms flat on the floor slightly away from your sides. Activate your TA by gently pressing your naval to your spine. Lift both feet off the floor anywhere from a few inches to about a foot. Keeping that same angle, slowly roll your hips to one side until you feel some pulling of the torso muscles on the opposite side. Stop there and return to center. Roll to the other side in the same manner. Go back and forth 10 times, making sure to tighten your TA and moving slowly through this exercise. This will give you a good idea how the TA and obliques work, and you may even get a sense of how they are working to keep your spine strong.
Throw this exercise into your routine, or use it on its own to start realizing better spine health. Thoughts? Please leave a comment below.
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