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If Better Abdominal Muscles Are Your New Year's Resolution, Try This

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Readers have been writing to ask about the conflicting reports in fitness magazines on how often you should work your abs. Some sources cite research studies saying you should rest between resistance training. Other articles say to exercise them every day.

It's common to debate fiber type and fatigue and conclude whether to schedule your abs daily or intermittently. Then people "do" abdominal exercise based on that, and completely neglect what abdominal muscles really do when you stand up and go about your daily life.

Abdominal muscles have their main function when you are standing. They do not automatically do anything to support your back or prevent lower back pain. The 'support' comes from how you stand. It has nothing to do with strengthening or tightening. Those are common fallacies.

Abdominal muscles attach from your hips to your ribs. When you use abdominal muscles, you prevent the distance between ribs and hip from lengthening, which bends the lower back, pinching it back like a soda straw. The post Fixing the Commonest Source of Mystery Lower Back Pain shows how this works. Abdominal muscles are like a guy wire attached to the front of a tree, keeping the tree from bending backward. Your abdominal muscles do not prevent leaning backward automatically. If you are not using your abs when you stand, your upper body will lean backward and/or your hip will tilt downward in front. This is called slouching. Your lower back overly curves inward too much, and pinches and pressures the joints and soft tissue of your lower back. People who overly arch the lower back (hyperlordosis) usually notice their back pain after long standing, walking, and running. They feel they need to lean forward or sit to relieve it. The leaning forward is not a "fix" but it feels good at the moment because you stop the pinching backward that causes the pain. You can prevent the pain in the first place by not slouching backward. Then you will get built-in use of abs, and not need a temporary palliative stop-gap measure of bending over forward, or picking up one leg.

Using your abs doesn't mean sucking them in or making them "tight," it means not letting your lower back overly-arch. When you tilt or tuck your hip under you to straighten your lower spine and straighten your upper body so that it does not lean backward, the muscles that straighten your spine from overly arching are your abdominal muscles. That is how abdominal muscles support your back - only when you deliberately use them to stop slouching.

Plenty of people have 6-pack abs and have terrible posture and continuing back pain. In my practice, I treat patients with bulging muscles who hurt their back opening windows because they overly arch the lower back when they reach upward and lift overhead.

If "abs" are part of your New Year's Resolution, here is how to get functional healthy abdominal exercise:

  1. Stop doing crunches. They are not functional, not healthy, and don't train your abs the way you really need them to work in real life.
  2. Instead of crunches, try the plank to practice and challenge healthy positioning, described in the post Change Common Exercises to Get Better Ab Exercise and Stop Back Pain.
  3. Stand properly without overarching. That gives built-in abdominal muscles exercise all the time. Do not suck in or tighten. Just position your spine away from unhealthy overarching.

If you "worked" your abs all day all the time by controlling your spine and lower back positioning, you wouldn't need to go to a gym to do funny little crunches - neither every day, nor every few days.


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About the Author


M.Ed, PhD, FAWM

Dr. Bookspan is an award-winning scientist whose goal is to make exercise easier and healthier.

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