If I had a dime for every crunch I did in my lifetime , I would have that dream home in the Caribbean by now! Doing abdominal exercises in various forms, such as crunches, oblique crunches, sit ups, reverse crunches, V-sits, and planks are a staple in most routines. When I was teaching aerobics years ago, if I skipped the abs portion, I would have been run out of the gym by 30 people in leg warmers and “big hair” (OK, it was the 80’s!). However, this is often still the case (minus the “big hair”). It is time for this fitness myth to catch up with the science.
The trunk contains some pretty important parts of the body – the organs, spinal cord, spine, heart, lungs. The purpose of the core muscle group is to stabilize and protect this area of the body during movements of daily life.
When we are “working” the core, we often mean we want to reduce the size of the trunk area – AKA spot reduce fat in the abdomen. Spot reducing is a myth (period). Yet, take a look most popular core programs and you will see the myth of spot reducing alive and well! (even if it is just implied). We need to be very savvy fitness consumers to recognize myth based marketing when we see it. The reality is “working” the core does not really “slim” the core!
What does it mean to strengthen the core? We can plank longer, do more crunches or sit ups, lift more weight with our core muscles? While this would be a measure of core strength, the real question is, does it lead to better function of the core in daily life? Does a strong core mean these muscles can do their job to hold the spine in alignment and reduce daily wear and tear, minimize the risk of back pain, enable us to do daily tasks with ease?
Remember the principle of specificity of exercise? If we want the core muscles to do their job, we need to learn to consciously activate these muscles with our brain during motions of daily life. Exercises done lying down do not mimic daily life and relies on gravity instead of conscious control from the brain to activate the core muscles.
What we want is core control. This means you can consciously activate your core muscles to hold your spine in alignment when lifting a heavy object, reaching overhead, twisting to reach an object, etc. Here is how:
- First, learn what alignment is for you. When the spine is out of alignment, the core muscles are not “lined up” to work their best and this increases wear and tear on the back.
- Notice when you are pulled out of alignment and practice using the brain to activate core muscles for that movement.
- During ALL strength training exercises, incorporate core bracing with proper alignment, without holding your breath.
- Practice turning off these muscles when you don’t need them. (ie: during cardio exercise). Often we are taught to “hold in the core muscle” when we really do not need them. Relax those core muscles in between activities so they can recharged for when you do need them.
Admittedly, this will require a mindset shift away from the hope of spot reducing the abdomen and the idea that traditional core exercises will improve function in daily life. The payoff is real “results” from an exercise plan based on the reality of movement science rather than long-standing fitness myths.
Keep Moving, Be Well
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These weekly blogs are general guidelines. These guidelines apply to patients who are cleared by a physician for the type of exercise described. Please contact your physician with any concerns or questions. Always report any symptoms associated with exercise, such as pain, irregular heartbeats, and dizziness or fainting, to your physician.