I’m sure you have heard that “planks are the new crunches for working your abs”. Maybe you are wondering why full ab curls or sit-ups from the floor have fallen out of favour with personal trainers. Well it’s mostly because these “retro” ab exercise don’t give the desired result all on their own. They can also be more damaging to the body than helpful. Picture the posture adopted to do sit-ups or crunches. You are coming up from the floor in a very forward folded position and perhaps pulling on the head or neck to help you get up. This action actually puts an unhealthy strain on your back at it’s weakest point and too much of this forward flexion of the spine can lead to bulging or herniated discs, compressed vertebrae or nerve damage over time.
The traditional sit-up also focuses mostly on the rectus abdominus muscle group which lies closest to the skin and runs vertically the length of the abdomen. These are the “six pack” muscles that can be seen when well developed on someone with little body fat. While strengthening the rectus abdominus is important it is more beneficial for back care to strengthen the obliques on the sides of the abdomen as well as the deeper transverse abdominus muscles. The transverse abs run horizontally beneath the rectus abs with the main function of stabilizing the pelvis and low back prior to movement. A strong transvers abdominus acts as a muscular girdle which provides a solid foundation for any movement as well as support against outside forces from every day repetitive motions such as bending, twisting, squatting etc. When these muscles are strong they help transfer force from these motions more efficiently through the muscle and not the joints, therefore reducing the risk of injury.
There are so many more ways to work on core strength and therefore back strength which are much more beneficial. The easiest exercise for core strength is to just “suck it in”. Just engage the abs as though you are preparing to be hit in the abdomen by a punch. Practise this anywhere, anytime. Sitting in the car, while watching TV, pushing a grocery cart or while at a cocktail party, simply pull the abs in. You are not pulling them in so hard that you can’t stand up straight or are unable to breath normally but just enough to prevent the abdomen from protruding or the low back from “swaying”. Go a step further and engage the gluts and the muscles between the shoulder blades slightly as well. This gives you excellent posture which not only protects the back and shoulders but takes years off the age people will guess you to be.
The held plank is perhaps the next progression. Pay close attention to the technique of a plank. As with all exercises, if done incorrectly it can do more harm than good. A low plank is with bent arms, the forearms on the floor, hands together and elbows apart. A high plank is from straight elbows and hands directly below the shoulders. Both versions require a straight spine. Engage the abs, the muscles between the shoulder blades and avoid dropping the hips below the shoulders. Aim for a nice straight line from heels to head. Back discomfort in the plank signals poor form or ab weakness. If there is discomfort, be sure to activate the abs as previously or pike the hips up slightly. Improved strength through increased practise of the exercise will prevent any discomfort.
When you can hold a plank with great technique for a minute or longer, add a variation to improve strength further. Single leg planks or side planks add intensity. If you are looking for more ideas for core strengthening exercises consider hiring a personal trainer to design a program for you or take a Pilates class, which is core strengthening at it’s ultimate. Keep in mind that it is best to train all muscle groups, keep variety in your workouts and remember that you can not spot reduce. Ab exercises will not “burn fat” from the abdomen. Protect your back, set a strong core.