Core stability, monkey spines, and crunches, OH MY!
Posted by Liz Sims, PT, DPT - Redpoint Physical Therapy, Plymouth, MA
Did you know that 15,000 crunches will herniate a disc in a monkey’s spine?
I can’t tell you why I know that. It’s not because I’m some kind of creep that keeps monkeys in her basement. It’s just that, I first heard that statistic in undergrad (we’re talking about 12 years ago now) - I can’t find the article to quote it, but the information has always stuck with me.
Where does this leave your core workout?
Because, I know the study was done on monkeys (this makes me sad, by the way - poor monkeys), but do you really want to take the risk just to get those abs of steal?
I HATE crunches.
I used to love them, because you could “feel the burn”, and because it made me feel like I was making my stomach look better. Funny thing is, in high school I could do hundreds of them, and I never actually achieved “the look” I was going for.
Here’s why I hate them. For starters, refer to the opening statement of this blog (monkey spines!). Second, crunches work your rectus abdominus - if you want a flat stomach, that’s not even the right muscle! Third, do you even know what your abdominal muscles’ job is?? They are supposed to maintain your spine in a neutral position against external forces, and they also work to stabilize your trunk and hold in your innards! Lastly - and this is an important one - your core muscles create a base for all movement of your limbs. That means you need to have well trained abdominal muscles to reach for something, lift a baby, walk up stairs, or throw a fast ball.
Abdominal muscles are so much more important than you realize, and they go far beyond aesthetics. Did you ever see one of those Big Strong Guys working out at the gym who had visible 6-pack abs of steal, but still had a pot belly? Yeah, they weren’t training right (at least, not by my standards).
So what should you do?
Start by finding and learning to recruit your transverse abdominus muscle. This is the major stabilizer in your trunk and works to hold the contents of your stomach in.
To locate your transverse abdominus, find the bony part of your hips, and move your hands just inside (as pictured above). With your hands in place, breathe out and gently draw your belly button towards your spine - you should feel your transverse abdominus firm up under your fingers. Try to maintain this muscle contraction while continuing to breath in and out for a count of 10.
Once you can maintain a transverse abdominus contraction while breathing, you can move to the next step:
While maintaining a transverse abdominus contraction, lift one leg and return to start, then switch legs. If you can perform this movement without any difficulty, start with both hips flexed to 90 degrees.
Are sit ups okay? Maybe... if you can maintain a neutral spine and transverse abdominus contraction, it's a great, functional, and useful exercise. If you curl up, we're back to talking about monkey spines again.
Same with planks - they can be great if done properly, and there are a ton of ways to make it harder once you master it.
That's all for this week. As always, if you have any questions, you know where to find me!
What's your favorite core exercise (and will you be changing it in light of my recent comments about monkey spines...)?