To understand why abdominal exercise is a vital component of any fitness programme we need to look at a few fundamental features of the spine. The lumbar spine is basically a series of bone bricks (vertebrae) separated by cushions (discs) with two small flat joints to the side (facet joints). This structure is supported by a series of flat elastic ligaments and must take the whole of the weight of your upper body day-in-day-out.
To do this, muscles are important. Experiments have shown that the spine without muscle is extremely weak. In fact the spinal discs actually burst when about 10-15kg of weight is placed on the spine in a bent position. Muscles move your spine, but more importantly they also support it, acting like a dynamic corset surrounding your spinal bones.
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“Experiments have shown that the spine without muscle is extremely weak.”
The muscles either side of your spine (erector spinae) are vital to spinal health, but they are not the only muscles with an important job to do. The erector spinae act as firm columns when you bend and lift – if you look at someone who regularly performs dead-lifts you will see these muscles are well developed. Equally, the same muscles of someone who has had back pain for some time will often be thin and wasted.
This is important because it’s an indication that exercise plays a pivotal roll in the treatment of low back pain, but it is often left out.Why? If you had a knee injury that required prolonged rest or even a plastercast your knee muscles would atrophy (reduce in size). When the cast came off you would not think about running or jumping until your muscles began to build back up.
Unfortunately because the back muscles lie behind you, we cannot see them waste. People often assume that after a bout of pain, requiring rest that they can simply start work again. However, without rehab to build up the muscles controlling the spine they are at risk of re-injury.
The abdominal muscles are also vital to the health of your spine even though they are seemingly on the wrong side of the body.It’s the oblique abdominals (especially the internal obliques) and the deeper transversus abdominus muscles which are important here because they wrap around your trunk attaching into a sheet of tissue (fascia) which covers the whole of your back.
When they tighten, these deep abdominal muscles grip around the spine like elastic bands around a food can, making your trunk into a more solid cylinder. If these muscles are weak, your spine loses support and two things happen. Firstly, your body tries to support itself by working the erector spinae harder and in so doing these muscles often become tight, knotted and painful – especially after a bout of physical work such as gardening.
Secondly, if the deep abdominal muscles are weak, all of your spinal tissues (discs, ligaments, joint structures) will be placed under greater stress and they can become inflamed and painful.Working the trunk muscles is therefore both prevention and cure.
Muscles which are in good condition are more able to support your spine and when the spine has been injured, restrengthening theses muscles will unload the spine – the muscles are able to take more stress so your other spinal structures take less, meaning you can recover from injury more quickly.
To re-strengthen the spine we need to work through three interrelating stages, which are progressive – that is they gradually challenge the body more as it adapts and improves. Stage 1 (correcting faulty movements) is about quality of movement. Making sure that the spine is moving correctly and that all the muscles work together at appropriate times.
Once this has been achieved we move to stage 2 (building back fitness), which especially focuses on muscle strength and endurance. Stage 3 (functional rehab) deals with working the spine by mimicking natural movements including whole body lifting, pushing and pulling.
Before we move through the stages of training for this body area we need to lay a firm foundation. There are two principle aspects to this, spinal alignment and appropriate muscle work. For this first aspect (spinal alignment), a client needs to be able to control the neutral position of their spine.
The neutral position is the position of least stress on the joints and by definition is midway between flexion (rounding) and extension (hollowing) of the lumbar spine.When we flex the spine the spinal discs are squeezed at the front. This is a natural movement, a little like squeezing toothpaste in a tube. As this happens pressure changes within the disc, pressing the gel within the centre backwards.
The spine is perfectly able to cope with this, providing we straighten up again so that the gel moves in the opposite direction. Unfortunately due to our modern lifestyle we spend a lot of our time in chairs at the office, sofas in front of the TV and in car seats. These are all lumbar flexion actions and the excessive amount of flexion over many years gradually weakens the disc.
Sometimes the gel within the disc bursts out of its casing like toothpaste from a tube. When it does (known as a prolapsed disc) – the gel presses on the spinal nerves causing inflammation and pain. Extension of the spine releases some of the stress placed on the disc through daily living. Unfortunately, excessive extension stresses the delicate facet joints at the back of the vertebra and can injure their ligaments again causing inflammation and pain.
The answer is to spend more time away from the extremes of flexion and extension and within the neutral spinal position. Of course being able to control neutral position is all about movement sense (proprioception). In some sports such as ballet and gymnastics this comes with the turf, as it does with many gym classes such as Pilates and yoga.
But for some clients who have never exercised this whole concept is very new and often hard to perform. It is essential however, because to progress further means putting resistance onto a spine without the client being able to control the spinal position – a very dangerous recipe.
Once someone can place their spine into a neutral position, the question is can they hold it there while they perform other actions. For example, it is all very well being able to find lumbar neutral, but if it is lost when the client performs a dead-lift, for example the spine is still placed under stress.
Appropriate muscle work
Appropriate muscle work means working the muscles that control spinal position before those which move the spine. In actual facts most of the trunk muscles can do both of these actions, but are better at one than the other.
The deeper muscles including the internal oblique, transversus abdominis, multifidus and the deep portion of quadratus lumborum are better suited to holding the spine firm (stiffness) while the muscles closer to the surface of the body including the rectus abdominus, the external obliques and the superficial part of quadratus lumborum are better at creating movement (torque).
It is not that this latter group are not important for supporting the spine, they most definitely are – they are just not as important with the subtle movements that we should be using for stage 1 of our training. These more superficial muscles together with erector spinae, latissimus dorsi and the gluteals become more important in heavier or faster training (stages 2 & 3) when they protect the spine from higher level forces which tend to push it away from the neutral position.
Over the next issues our abdominal training programme starts with the foundation movements, focussing on spinal alignment and appropriate muscle work. We then progress to gradually building back fitness and moving into more and more functional whole body positions. Follow our programme and strengthen your core and reduce potential back pain.