“Larry, I hurt my back last week doing squats. Do you know of any good exercises that will not only help my back but keep me from hurting it again?”
“Well, Bob”, I said to a fellow trainer here in Salt Lake City as I paused for a moment between sets. “You probably have some posterior pelvic tilt which is causing you some problems”.
I went on to explain some of the exercises he could to to help correct the problem.
Many of us, whether we are serious trainers or just an occasional weight pusher will periodically suffer from low back pain. Pain can be a terrific motivator to help us find solutions. As John Patrick said. “Pain makes man think. Thought makes man wise. Wisdom makes life endurable.”
Sometimes, however, pain can be downright intolerable.
Low back pain is such a prevalent problem amongst the general public, several exercise equipment manufacturers not too long ago came forth with the cure for all our “weak backs” they called them the Low Back Machines. Actually, I think the first to come out with this “cure” for low back problems was Nautilus and then of course many of the other equipment manufacturers followed suit.
The only rub is, according to Dr. Florence Kendall, author of the informative “Muscle Testing and Function” book, seldom is the problem with the low back.
She says, “The term “weak back” as frequently used in connection with low back pain mistakenly suggests there is weakness of the low back muscles. The feeling of weakness that occurs along with painful back is associated with faulty alignment and is often caused not by weak back muscles but by weak abdominal muscles.
Doesn’t seem to make sense does it? Let’s listen further to what she has to say.
Doctor Kendall continues,” In both extension of the spine (moving to an erect position) and lateral flexion (pulling to the side) muscle imbalance is seldom sufficient to cause pain. In contrast, trunk flexing muscles (those used doing situps) are frequently imbalanced to such an extent as to cause chronic pain in the LOWER BACK.”
Some People become aware of abdominal muscle weakness because of a painful low back or simply because they are concerned about their appearance and posture. Traditional situps and leg raises have been offered as the panacea for strengthening these muscles. Unfortunately, they are not the cure-all they are supposed to be. In fact these exercises may actually contribute to the problem. It seems people with already strong abdominal muscles can do the traditional sit-ups or leg raises without harmful side effects. If, however, ones abdominal muscles are already
weakened from disuse and over eating to the point of recurring low back aches; these exercises further weaken the very muscles they are trying to strengthen.
Doesn’t seem logical does it? How can the same exercise be a benefit to one set of people and a detriment to another group.
Actually, contrary to popular belief, our traditional abdominal exercises are not very effective for any group of individuals. Dr Kendall states,”When there is a marked weakness of the abdominal muscles, use of these two exercises (sit ups and leg raises) should be avoided because they can further weaken and strain the abdominal muscles instead of strengthening them.”
Here’s what happens. During the conventional sit up either with the legs straight or even with the leg bent, the movement is being effectuated by both the abdominal muscles and a group of muscles called the hip flexors.
If the abdominal muscles are weak and the hip flexors are strong, the strain will all go to the lower back because this is where the hip flexors are attached. It’s like someone is trying to lift you up from a supine position by reaching thru your midsection and grabbing hold of your spine and pulling you up. If one has a painful lower back, just trying to imagine this can bring more tears to the eyes than peeling onions.
Even though this sounds a little contrived, it is exactly what is happening. Naturally, this further aggravates a low back problem.
“Lets do leg raises instead of sit ups”, you say.
Same problem. If the abdominal muscles aren’t strong enough to keep the back flat on the floor while doing the leg raises, the same dangerous condition occurs. Except, leg raises are even worse because the abdominal muscles never see any isotonic exercise (shortening of the muscle fibre). The rectus abdominals serve only as stabilizers (isometric work) during the entire process of leg raises.
What then, needs to be done in order to work the abdominal muscles correctly rather than to continue to build stronger and stronger hip flexors at the expense of rectus abdominals and worse yet, increased lordotic spinal trauma.
One of the first and most important things is to stop thinking of sit-ups and start thinking of trunk curls. The main clue to doing proper trunk curls is to watch for the position of the lower back while doing the exercise.
Assume a traditional sit up position with the legs elevated, so the thighs are perpendicular to the floor as they would be when the calves are resting on a workout bench. The feet should never be held down or this again works one of the hip flexor muscles (rectus femoris). The lower back should stay in contact with the floor as the body is slowly raised up into position somewhat like rolling up a carpet. If the lower back lifts off the floor during the beginning 1/2 of the exercise this is an immediate tip off, the hip flexors are doing most of the work.
Okay, what about leg raises then? If they are almost all hip flexor action what then does one do for lower abdominal work?
You might be interested to know Electromyographic studies done by Crow and Gardner on students doing trunk curls confirm that muscular contractions appear first in the upper rectus abdominals, followed about .2 seconds later by lower rectus abdominals. Further, when holding the “crunch” for a few seconds, intense electrical activity is reported equally throughout the upper and lower rectus abdominals.
This would seem to indicate both upper and lower abdominals are worked entirely if the movement is held for a few seconds at the top of the trunk curl.
For those of you who would like to do additional work on the lower abdominals there is an exercise for this area. I will try to describe it for you. It gets a little technical so listen carefully. The lower abdominals work only when the pelvis moves with respect to the trunk. An exercise known as the pelvic tilt is a short range movement but it does directly employ the lower abdominals. Let me explain how it is done.
Start by lying on your back on the floor with the legs perpendicular with the floor (calves resting on a bench). Place the arms straight out over your head with the back of the palms pressed to the floor. Now, in this position press the lower back down hard against the floor by lifting the pelvis up and towards the chest. You will need to flex the lower abdominals in order to accomplish this “pelvic rock”. Hold the lower back hard against the floor for a count of ten and release letting the pelvis flow down to its normal position and repeat.
This is a terrific exercise to get rid of the old “pot belly”. After some time this exercise will get too easy and you will want to place a folded towel under your hips to make the lower abdominals pull even harder.