Of all the fitness topics, abdominal training is the one that best exemplifies the pendulum theory. You can literally get dizzy watching the experts swing from one extreme of the ab training spectrum to the other. You see, years ago, the experts were pounding the table, claiming that you must train your abs in order to prevent back injuries. Now, these same experts are claiming that you must AVOID training your abs (with anything other than planks) because it is the ab exercises themselves that are actually the nasty perpetrators of those same spinal injuries.
Well, which one is it? Have the experts recently experienced an evolution in their anatomical understanding, or are they jumping on the latest bandwagon? Before we answer this question too quickly, let’s investigate their reasons for the recent anti-ab movement.
1) Flexion of the spine contributes to disk herniations- Although this certainly is a possibility, it must be qualified. Unfortunately, the new wave of “cutting-edge trainers” have overreacted to certain research, and uncritically adopted these findings as gospel. I, on the other hand, read the research (yes, I do have embarrassing geek-like tendencies), analyze it, and if it makes sense, put it to the test in my own lab (aka my training center) before endorsing it.
This spinal flexion issue has not been able to circumvent the close examination of “Alvino scrutiny”. After 19 years of training clients, I have definitely prescribed my share of abdominal exercises that involve some degree of spinal flexion. Med ball throws, crunches on a Swiss ball, hanging knee raises, along with many other movements can be witnessed in my training center on a regular basis.
According to some, my advice has directly contributed to many orthopedic spinal surgeons’ bank accounts. In fact, the opposite has been true. Countless clients who came to me experiencing back pain have completely resolved their back issues from strengthening their core and lengthening the tight muscle groups (predominantly involving the hips).
Truth be told, I have never had a problem from doing these exercises with any client. And since I’m a real world guy, 20 years of training results hold more weight for me than any study could ever dream to.
Here are my thoughts and recommendations regarding spinal flexion:
1) Only pick exercises that are appropriate for your strength. This advice is obvious and goes for any muscle group.
2) Always maintain perfect technique. When it comes to exercises involving the spine, cheat reps are not recommended.
3) Listen to your body for feedback. If it hurts, don’t do it!
4) NEVER allow for spinal flexion when your spine is compressed or posteriorly loaded. Examples of this would be rounding your back during a deadlift or squat.
5) The lumbar spine anatomically allows for both lateral and forward flexion. In this sense, ab exercises involving these movements are totally natural, and thus relatively safe, assuming they are done with proper form and with appropriate volume and intensity.
6) Never try to flex or extend the spine beyond its natural and effortless range of motion.
2) Rotation of the spine causes sheer force that can damage the disks- Once the research showed this fact, trainers all over the world suggested that their clients avoid rotational exercises like the plague! Was this a necessary reaction? Nope. Let me explain why.
I would first like to point out that the lumbar spine allows for very minimal rotation. Instead, it is the thoracic spine that is responsible for the majority of spine rotation.
If you utilize rotational exercises that respect this simple anatomical fact, your risk of lumbar spine injury will be quite low. In fact, most injuries from rotational exercises occur simply because of poor exercise choice. Therefore, it is critical to pick exercises that are mechanically sound.
The key to incorporating rotational exercises (or any exercises for that matter) is to only choose ones that are natural. Many so-called “isolated” oblique exercises unnaturally lock the pelvis in a fixed position. A seated med ball rotational throw is a good example of a bad exercise for this very reason.
The pelvic seizing caused by these types of exercises forces the spinal segments to attempt to rotate more than they should. In other words, in an attempt to achieve full range of motion, the spine tries to pick up the slack for the lack of pelvic rotation. This puts unnecessary and ill-advised stress on the spine.
Here are my thoughts and recommendations regarding spinal rotation:
1) See points 1,2, 3 above regarding the recommendations for spinal flexion exercises.
2) Don’t do any rotational exercises that lock the hips in a fixed position. Instead of giving you a lengthy list of crappy exercises to avoid, I will tell you a simple rule of thumb. When you rotate to your left, make sure your hips are also rotating to the left (to approximately the same degree) and vice versa.
3) Don’t rotate and flex the spine at the same time (an example would be doing lying windshield wipers with your back rounded). Rotation should be done from a neutral spine position.
So there you have it. There is no need to sentence yourself to a life of exclusive plank workouts. Follow these guidelines, train smart, and respect your spine. Your spine and your abs will thank you for it.
Dedicated to your success,