For Better Abs, Work Your Core

I found a great article online about the quest for flatter abs. The author does a great job exploding the myth that crunches or sit-ups are the answer and even explains that repetitive back flexing exercises like that can have the unwanted side effect of causing back problems. She explains that the real secret to flatter abs is through strengthening the core muscles. I would like to add my own opinion that Pilates, which is focused on strengthening your core muscles is a great exercise program to get the flat abs you want and reduce back pain at the same time. Here is a recap of the article:

Stop Doing Sit-Ups: Why Crunches Don’t Work
by Kate Dailey

Everyone knows that the road to flat, tight abs is paved with crunches. Lots and lots and lots of excruciating crunches. Or is it?

As it turns out, the exercises synonymous with strong, attractive abs may not be the best way to train your core—and may be doing damage to your back.

We stopped teaching people to do crunches a long, long time ago,” says Dr. Richard Guyer, president of the Texas Back Institute.  That’s because the “full flex” movement—the actual “crunch” part of crunches – puts an unhealthy strain on your back at its weakest point. The section with the most nerves (and most potential for nerve damage) is in the back of the spine, which is the very part that bends and strains during a sit-up.

“There are only so many bends or a ‘fatigue life’,” in your spinal disks,” says Stuart M. McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. Inside each disk is a mucus-like nucleus, he says, and “if you keep flexing your spine and bending the disk over and over again, that nucleus slowly breaches the layers and causes a disk bulge, or a disk herniation.”  A herniated disk won’t show through your swimsuit, but it’s no fun, and can cause persistent back and leg pain, weakness, and tingling.

But who cares about back health as bathing suit season approaches? Turns out, crunches might not be the best solution for a flat stomach, either. That’s because doing too many sit-ups at the expense of other, more comprehensive movements can lead to the dreaded “aerobic abs.”  That’s the term celebrity trainer Steve Maresca coined to describe the distended stomachs of those who focus only on the rectus abdominus muscles targeted by sit-ups and crunches. “They look great from the front, but when they turn to the side, their stomachs are extended,” he says. To get the long, lean look, one needs to work transverse abdominius, a large muscle that holds in those rectus abs, and is mainly unchallenged by traditional ab work (aka, the sit-up and crunches).

Doing a sit-up doesn’t train your ab muscles to do the job for which they were designed – keeping your spine straight and secure and providing power for your movements. In everyday life, “the abdominals are braces,” says McGill, author of “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance” (Stuart McGill, 2004). When doing any athletic movement—even opening a door—“the spine is in a neutral posture, not flexed, and the abdominal muscles are contracted to brace the spine.”

The best way—for both your back and your beach body—to work your midsection is to do movements that challenge the muscles to perform the way they’re designed and expected to work in real life, and not to train muscles in isolation. “It’s important to have strong abs, but strong abdominals are not the only thing,” says Dr. Guyer. “You have your back extenders, your flexors, which are belly muscles, you have your oblique muscles.” Working all of these muscle groups—the anatomical association known as “the core”—is essential to both back health and general athleticism.

See the complete article

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