A New Way To Understand and Use Abdominal Muscles

     

Dr. Jolie Bookspan

You’ve heard that developing your abdominal muscles will help your lifting, posture and your back pain.
So why isn’t it working?

What Do Abs Do?

Many people have heard the old myth that using your abs means “sucking them in,” “tightening them,” or “pressing your navel to your spine.” But you can’t move or breathe properly that way. If you bend your arm, you don’t tighten your muscles to do it, you just move your arm bones using your arm muscles. Abs work the same way. Abs connect your ribs to your hips along your front and sides. When you use your abs, they pull your ribs and hips closer, bending your spine to the front or sides.

When you stand up and don’t use your abs, that allows your ribs and hips to be too far apart. Your low back sways, exaggerating the normal inward curve. Arching like this drops the weight of your upper back on your lower back, grinding away your soft tissues and discs, and irritating the joints, called facets, where each vertebra attaches to the next.

When do people arch like this? When they stand up. When they look up. When they reach up. When they pick up a load like a laundry backet, chair, or baby. Many people can’t even pull their shoulders back or drink a glass of water without arching their back. Much back pain results but it is just an easily changed bad posture.
Try this:
-Stand up and put one hand on the front of your hip bone where your abs begin. This will be close to the bottom of your pant’s zipper. Put your other hand on your ribs where your abs end. Draw your two hands toward each other, curling your torso forward. This is how many people exercise their abs when doing crunches, but you don’t need this posture often in daily life.

-To see what happens when you don’t use your abs, still holding your ribs and hip bone, arch back and let your ribs lift and your abdomen curve out. The distance between your hands increases, showing how slack ab muscles allow your back to arch. Your body weight falls onto your low back.

-The ways abs need to work for your real life is to keep your spine from overly-arching backward or slouching to the side. To use abs to stand up properly, curl your hands toward each other so your torso comes upright to a straightened, taller position. This is how abs control posture and stop the strain of dropping your body weight on your low back. It is not tightening your abs that helps your back, it is using your muscles to move your spine out of an overly arched to a healthier position.

If you don’t believe that “tightening” is not how to use your abs, try the following:
Tighten abs, as commonly taught. Press your navel to your spine. Tighten the entire area. Now breathe. Note that such tightening would not be possible or useful for daily activity.
Next stand with arched posture. Tighten the abs and surrounding musculature. Note that posture does not change.

Stop tightening the area so that movement is unrestricted. Tuck the spine and hip to remove the lordotic arch, straightening posture. Train abs by using them to hold healthy spine positioning during all activities.
What Is Lordosis?
Many people with back pain are told they have a “condition” called lordosis. They think this is something anatomic, unavoidable, or something that “just happens” to them like flu.

Technically the word “lordosis” originally meant the normal inward curve of the low back. It has commonly come to mean too much inward curve, allowing the back to sway. It creates all kinds of back pain, but is just a bad posture habit.

You’ll see this overly-arched (lordotic) posture in an astonishing number fitness videos, magazines, books, and classes. The video star may say, “keep neutral spine” but if you look at them they arch their back and stick out their behind in dozens of exercises from leg lifts, to lifting weights, to bouncing around in aerobics.

Lordosis is usually completely controllable by using the technique above to pull you to straight, tall, relaxed proper posture with only a small natural inward curve to the lower back. You can see that it is not “tightening” that makes you stand with good posture, it is just voluntarily moving your spine. Do this during all your activities and with all the stuff you carry.

If you habitually stand with your back arched, your back may tighten to the point where you can’t straighten it. All the ab exercises in the world won’t control your posture because you’re stuck in the “booty-out” posture. You just need to stretch and retrain your posture. Future articles will cover this.
How To Use Your Abs For Lifting Things Overhead
Many people arch their back when reaching overhead. That allows their upper body weight plus the weight of things they are lifting to press down on their low back. They do this dozens of times daily doing things as innocuous as putting things on shelves, pulling off shirts, even combing and washing hair. Imagine the damage that accumulates.

Try this:
- Stand up and reach overhead. See if you allow your ribs to lift up and your back to arch.


Fix that by straightening your body, as if starting to do a crunch, to take the exaggerated curve out of your low back, but don’t curl your body or neck forward. Then reach up again, holding this new proper posture. You’ll feel you are using your torso muscles to hold your body weight. You may also feel your shoulders getting more reach.

Transfer this straightening skill to your daily life for carrying gear, putting cargo up on racks, heavy packages on counters, and whenever you lift and reach. Your gear could be a built-in ab exercise to maintain proper posture against an anterior load. When picking up a chair or a child, or any load, don’t lean back to counter the weight, use your ab muscles. When you are washing your hair in the shower, notice if you are arching your back, allowing your weight to rest on your low back. Fix this bad posture by using your abs to move your spine. If you use your abs lije this for daily positioning, you should notice a large reduction in your back pain.
How To Use Your Abs While Wearing Backpacks
Heavy bags and backpacks don’t make you arch your back or have bad posture. Not using your ab muscles to counter the pull, and allowing your back to arch is the problem.

Try this:
-Stand up wearing a backpack. If you notice yourself arching or leaning back, straighten your body as if starting to do a crunch but don’t curl forward, round your shoulders, or crane your neck forward. Just straighten your body against the pull of the load and maintain your posture.

- If you stick your behind out to “hike up” the bag, tuck your behind in slightly. Don’t tuck so much that you lean back or stick your hips forward like “Urkel.”

-If you round or lean forward trying to counter balance the weight, tuck your hips in and stand straight. You will feel your abs working.

- This is how to stand up using your abs to maintain good posture against a posterior load. Your bags could be a built-in ab exercise.
How To Use Your Abs While Carrying Things in Front
Many people arch back when carrying an anterior load, like a chair or a baby. This shifts the weight of the load plus all the weight of your upper body down onto your low back. Many people have heard the false statement that being pregnant makes your posture change and arch. This is not true — it is preventable by just using your muscles to fix your posture and stand without arching. Of all times to prevent this arching, this it is. To prevent this problem and get good postural exercise at the same time, try this:
Stand up and pick up a chair in front of you.
If you notice yourself arching or leaning back, straighten your body as if starting to do a crunch but don’t curl forward, round your shoulders, or crane your neck forward. Just straighten your body against the pull of the load and maintain your posture.

This is how to stand up using your abs to maintain good posture against any anterior load. Your bags and babies could be a built-in ab exercise.


How To Use Your Abs When Swimming
The same principles of using your abs when standing up apply to swimming. Many people allow their back to sag into an exaggerated arch, making them look like they are facedown in a hammock. The fulcrum of the kick becomes their low back joints instead of the muscles of the abs and hip. This is why many people are mistakenly told that swimming is good for you except for the front crawl which “makes you arch your back.” It’s not swimming that makes you arch. It is you allowing it. Use your abs to straighten your posture. Your body will be streamline, your kick will be powerful, and your back will stop hurting from the pressure of “creasing” the low back by arching.

The same principles of using your abs when standing up apply to swimming. Many people allow their back to sag into an exaggerated arch, making them look like they are facedown in a hammock. The fulcrum of the kick becomes their low back joints instead of the muscles of the abs and hip. This is why many people are mistakenly told that swimming is good for you except for the front crawl which “makes you arch your back.” It’s not swimming that makes you arch. It is you allowing it. Use your abs to straighten your posture. Your body will be streamline, your kick will be powerful, and your back will stop hurting from the pressure of “creasing” the low back by arching.
It’s Not Arching That is Bad
Arching your back, by itself, is not the problem in back pain and posture control. The problem is not using muscles to keep your upper body weight off your low back. Many people don’t know to use their abs during moves where you extend your back while standing, and just allow their low back to fold backward under all their weight. By holding your upper body weight forward with your abs you can lean and extend back without your weight pressing onto your low back. This is often confused, and some people think they must never arch their back. Proper back extension is one of the most important exercises for back health and is covered in our back pain article on this web site.
What’s Wrong With The Way Things Are?
Why not just do ab exercises to prevent all the problems? A recent fitness industry survey looked at common ab exercises and ranked them from most to least effective in using ab muscles. But the surveyors missed three basic concepts. An exercise can work a specific muscle but still promote bad posture and not be good for you. Even if an exercise activates your ab muscles, it still may not be useful for things you need for daily life. Simply strengthening a muscle will not transfer the posture skills you need for proper use in sports and recreation, or for back pain control.
What’s Wrong With Crunches?
It’s practically universal to see a gym full of people doing crunches, then stand up and walk away with arched backs and no use of abs, or knowledge that you are supposed to use abs standing up. Crunches don’t work your abs the way you need for real life. Crunches don’t train you how to use your abs the rest of the day. Crunches promote poor posture, even when done properly. Crunches make a person, who likely spends much of their day already hunched over a work area, practice that hunched posture which may be mechanically promoting the back and neck pain they think they are working their abs to prevent.

Some Ab Exercises
Instead of curling forward, here are exercises that work your abs and back at the same time, plus train you how to hold your back in healthy position when you stand up again. This innovation in core training is called The Ab Revolution. Some ab exercise examples follow. Hundreds more can be found in the book, mentioned below, or in our Ab Revolution classes.

Isometric Abs
Lie face up, arms overhead on floor, biceps by your ears. Press your low back toward the floor to remove the arch. You will feel your abdominal muscles working to prevent your back from arching. Hold hand weights an inch above the floor, without arching your back. Keep your low back against the floor by using ab muscles to straighten your spine. This is how your abs should work all the time, when standing up, to prevent too much arching. Notice that you don’t need to tighten your abs to do this. Just use ab muscles, like any other muscles, to move your body to healthy position. Don’t tighten anything, just move your spine and learn how to move it when standing into healthy straighter posture.

As you get better at this exercise, gradually straighten your legs so that you can practice posture the way you need it for standing up - spine held at healthy position without bending knees. There are trainers who say you must bend your knees to “protect your back” from arching. But it is your own ab muscles that are supposed to hold your back in position. How could you stand up and go about your life, if the only way to “protect your back” is to keep your knees bent? Many people let their back arch when standing. Use this exercise to strengthen your abs at the same time as retraining standing posture.

Hold a Push-up Position
In a push-up position (hands and toes, not on knees) tuck your hips under so that your back doesn’t arch. You will immediately feel your abs working when you do this. You will also immediately feel the pressure in your back disappear, that was caused by arching. The purpose of this exercise is to train your abs at the same time you relearn how to hold your back when you are standing up. Keep your back straight, not letting it sag into an arch like a hammock. Tuck hips as if you were starting a crunch, but don’t hike your behind up in the air or drop your head. Make your posture as straight as if you were standing up. Use a mirror, if available, to see yourself and learn what healthy position feels like. Use this new healthy position all the time, particularly when you stand and reach overhead.

Many people do pushups and allow their low back to arch.
This means they are not using their core muscles to straighten their posture. Arching pressures the low back and does not work your “core” muscles.
Instead, tuck your hip to straighten your back.

When you tuck your hip to straighten your back, you will immediately feel your abs working, and the pressure in your low back will disappear.
The weight of your body shifts to your ab muscles and off your low back.

Practice variations of the “hold push-up position” exercise. Lift one leg without letting your spine sag. Lift the opposite arm. Then try lifting one leg out to the side parallel to the floor without letting your posture sag. There are dozens of variations. Try them all, carefully and safely, in sets of several repetitions, increasing as you improve.

thank you to the participants of the Wilderness Medical Society
back pain workshop for being in this photo

Practice variations of the “hold push-up position” exercise to train your oblique abs to hold your posture against changes in load. This simulates carrying knapsacks and shoulder bags and not letting your spine sag under the load. When you can do this, lift the top leg.

For a more challenging ab exercise, hold one leg out to the side, holding a straight pushup position. Lift the opposite arm and hold. Then try pushups like this.

No More Tightening
Yes, this is new and different from what we learned in school and at the gym. Discard the outdated and misleading notion of “tightening” your abs, or any muscles to use them, or the old “press navel to spine.” You cannot breathe properly or function that way, and walking around with “tight” muscles is a factor in headaches and stress/strain related muscle pain. Just use your muscles to hold your spine in healthy position, easily, no matter what you are doing or carrying.

When you carry any loads in front of your body, don’t arch back to “balance it” or let the weight pull you into an arch. With packs on your back, don’t arch or hunch forward. Use your ab and torso muscles to tip your hip back under you and lift your weight up and off your low back. With a bag on one shoulder, don’t let it pull you to the side; simply use your own side (oblique) muscles to hold your posture against the sideways pull. It’s free exercise and it’s good for you.

With this new knowledge you’ll strengthen your abs and get ab exercise without going to a gym. You’ll burn calories. You’ll be straighter and taller. You’ll save your back. You’ll be healthier. You’ll exercise your brain. It’s a whole different way of thinking about abs. It’s a revolution.

Classes
To learn amazing exercises to challenge your abs, change your thinking, and learn to use healthy back posture, take our fun and dynamic class The Ab Revolution.


Articles
-
Read this short article for a quick-start on how to fix your own back pain,

- Learn how to fix neck pain, hernatied cervical discs, pinched nerve, and upper back and shoulder pain.

- Read the full back pain article for more on how to fix your own back pain, plus learn effective exercises.

- Learn about hernatied lumbar discs and sciatica and how to fix them yourself.

- To avoid ineffective habits that work against your health, read “Why Fitness Isn’t Working”

- To learn how to tell if you are moving in healthy ways, read “Bad Exercises and Ones To Do Instead.”

- To learn how to stretch the way you really need for real life, and to feel better now, read this stretching article.

Books
The Ab Revolution™ No More Crunches! No More Back Pain! by Dr. Jolie Bookspan. Expanded second edition.
Revolutionary core training method - No crunches. Combines sports medicine with fun exercise to get a workout at the same time that you retrain your muscles for healthy movement for ordinary daily activities. Burn more calories and get incredible abs. Used by military, law enforcement, and the nation’s top spine docs.
Order Toll Free: 800-839-8640 http://www.theabrevolution.com/

Health & Fitness in Plain English by Dr. Jolie Bookspan.
Previously sold out and unavailable, now bigger and improved in a bigger, better second edition. 31 chapters on health, nutrition, exercise, and pain prevention. 363p.
Order toll free (888) 229-5745 http://www.healthylearning.com/cp/cgi-bin/cp-app.cgi?usr=8421671&rnd=9970230&pg=store&sub_pg=prod&ref=188