By: Amanda J. Meyers, DC
Americans have spent decades trying to achieve the perfect abs. There have been uncountable marketing and publicity ploys to entice consumers that the next product is the miracle worker. Continually consumers fall for the idea of the next best thing and millions of dollars are spent each year on products that get stored away and forgotten. Those of you that are sympathizing as you read this know exactly what I’m talking about…
Although many of these products and exercises have yet to prove they are effective, the companies do seem to understand one thing: the importance of “core stability,” a term that has risen in use over the last 10 years. But what exactly is core stability? It’s certainly not the ideal flat six-pack stomach. In fact, it is the musculature deep within the abdomen and even around the spine that denotes a stable core. Core stability helps maintain good posture and prevent injury.
What muscles provide core strength and which muscles do not?
First, the muscles that we see in the front of the abdomen (rectus abdominis) have very little strength. Sorry to disappoint those of you who do crunches obsessively to have the six-pack for the beach. Instead, it is the deeper abdominal muscles known as the “obliques” and tranversus abdominis that provide us with abdominal strength. Even smaller muscles, such as multifidus and rotatores, lie along the vertebral column (spine) and provide stability. The above muscles are activated with more of a twisting motion than your typical “sit up” or “crunch.”
Second, the “iliopsoas” complex can be an inhibitor to strengthening the core and also a major contributor to low back pain. The iliopsoas consists of the iliacus muscle that sits on the inside of the pelvis and the psoas muscle that attaches to the front of the lumbar vertebrae. The muscles join to form a common tendon that crosses the hip joint. The action of the muscles flex the hip, drawing the thigh closer to the abdomen, an action often seen when an “ab workout” is performed. When iliopsoas is contracted or shortened, the pulling on the front of the spine can be accentuated increasing the arch (lumbar lordosis) of the low back. Often patients will describe that it feels like “my butt is sticking out” or “my abdomen protrudes forward.” With an increased lumbar lordosis, the joints in the back of the spine become compressed, there is less room for the spinal nerves to exit and a combination of joints, muscles and nerves may become inflamed resulting in low back pain.
Knowing the action of the iliopsoas, it is easier to understand what it means to cheat when doing an ab workout: any exercise that involves flexing at the hips can be easily performed without activating the abdominals. The downside to over-activating thie iliopsoas is two-fold: 1) as the exercise is performed, the abdominals are not activated and 2) the psoas muscle actively engages and pulls on the front of the lumbar spine increasing the lumbar lordosis, hence promoting the low back pain.
Is your workout really working against you?
Change it up! In order to engage your core stability muscles, isometric exercises such as “planks” or “pelvic tilts” are effective. These exercises are beneficial for training the body to function with stability and, therefore, protecting the low back. Once the deep stability muscles are activated regularly, moving on to gentle twisting motions will help further strengthen the core and utilize the obliques and transverses abdominis. Often a positive change in posture is noticed and low back pain is eased.
Please note that it is imperative to speak with a licensed trainer or chiropractic physician prior to engaging in “hard core” stability exercises. Awareness to proper form is necessary to appropriately engage the muscles discussed and protect the low back from injury.