Abdominal strength exercises do more than just make define the abs. The strength derived from these exercises helps maintain better posture. Prolonged sitting can weaken the lower back area, which leads to slouching. Strengthening this area makes it easier to sit and stand up straight. Ab strength also reduces the risk of injury, which helps with daily tasks such as carrying heavy bags, bending to pick things up, and house cleaning. Sports also require a strong core, as the muscles in the lower back and abdomen are often bent and twisted repeatedly. Ab strength allows for better movement control and counteracts some of the pressure put on the body during these strenuous activities.1 Sciatica, or nerve pain in the legs, can also be relieved by abdominal strength exercises. Exercises strengthen areas in the abdominal and back muscles which can then provide more support for the back, relieving the legs of some pressure. Consistent, gentle strengthening can reduce recovery time for a sciatic flare up and lower the chances of future occurrences of pain.2
Some Ab Workouts to Consider
There is a wide variety of abdominal strength exercises that support core strengthening. It is important to vary the exercises so that a repetitive stress injury does not develop. A workout for the lower back that supports the natural curves of the spine is “arch back”. The patient must lie face down and clasp their hands behind their back. Contraction of the ab muscles is followed by slowly raising the upper body, from the head to upper ribs, while the rest of the lower body is still pressed against the floor. The arch should be held for five seconds before being slowly lowered back to the floor for a break of five seconds, with this exercise being repeated up to eight times. The “cat and camel” exercise is performed by getting down onto the hands and knees, first curving the back upward and then relaxing the back so that it sags while the head looks up, holding each position for five seconds. The “cross crawl” is another exercise done on the hands and knees. This time, done simultaneously, one arm is stretched straight out, level with the shoulder, while one leg on the opposite side of the body is stretched straight out, level with the hips. This form is held for five seconds, and slowly returned to the original position before it is repeated on the opposite side. The exercise can be repeated up to twelve times on each side. These are just a few examples. All abdominal strength exercises should be done with contracted abdominal muscles, using a slow pace, and stopped if too much pain is experienced. While there may be some strain if the muscles have not been worked properly in a long time, causing more back problems from too much stress and overwork is not the goal of this workout.3
Problems with Some Workouts
Not all workouts meant for core strengthening are good in the long term. One very well-known series of exercises in this category are crunches. For one thing, the majority of people do not do crunches properly. Improper form leads to injuries in the spine, some of which will not show up immediately. Some might keep the spine too flat while others over-extend the same area, both of which are not natural for the spine. Even after the workout, crunches can unconsciously leave the patient with an incorrect idea of how to hold their posture. Crunches are also not beneficial to the real core strength, creating a surface six pack while not really supporting the body. The repetition and rigidity of the exercises creates tension in the hips and neck. Crunches are also not a very mentally engaging exercise, which means that the patient likely will not be interested in doing many or performing them properly. Exercise should be interesting and create activity in the body and mind.4 Crunches are not the only activity that can be detrimental to the body. Sit-ups, which are exercises similar to crunches, come with the same issues. Double leg lifts cause the hip flexor muscles to pull on the front lumbar vertebrae, leading to compression and strains. Planks can compress the spine and also cause issues if you have a bad back. Breathing problems are another side-effect of improper ab workouts. For example, excessive voluntary stomach compression hinders the movement of the diaphragm, leading to a shallower breath. Bad breathing habits in the long run can actually cause the body to adapt to them so that breath is always shallow and difficult. Medical conditions like asthma, sleep apnea, and even panic attacks can arise from shortness of breath. It is important to perform the right exercises and breathe regularly and take in enough air through the nose, as mouth breathing is also detrimental to regular respiration.5
Find out about back exercises and stretches you can do.