Abdominal Training – Use Corrective Exercise to Stop Hurting Your Back

Article by Justin Price

A Look at When Abdominal Training Can Lead to the Need for Corrective Exercise 

What does your abdominal training routine or the abdominal exercises you recommend for your clients look like? Are the techniques you choose helping your abs look good while inadvertently hurting your lower back? Lets take a look at what can lead to back pain and when corrective exercise is useful.

Most abdominal workouts contain variations of plank and abdominal bridging exercises. These exercises strengthen the muscles that help stabilize the pelvis, spine and rib cage for movements that require the body to brace for protection or in preparation for lifting.

As such, these exercises are extremely important. They will be an integral part of any abdominal training program that will also help safeguard the back from pain and injury.1

Sit- ups and Crunches Shorten Abdominal Muscles When Overused and Cause the Need for Corrective Exercise

However, sit-ups and crunches typically also make up a substantial portion of many ab-training routines. While these exercises are useful for strengthening the rectus abdominis and obliques to help build muscle, when overused they can actually lead to more back pain and the need for corrective exercise.2

A Look at Basic Biomechanics to Understand the Need for Corrective Exercise in an Abdominal Training Routine

An effective ab routine designed to strengthen the abdominals and protect the lower back should include exercises that target the rectus abdominis to lengthen under tension (i.e., like a rubber band stretching). This is because the rectus abdominis must have the ability to stretch under stress as impact passes through the body during daily activities and sports.

For example, as the foot strikes the ground when walking and running impact is transferred back up through the feet, legs and pelvis to the spine. As this force approaches the torso the rectus abdominis and obliques need to lengthen to help absorb this shock (see Figure 1). However, if these muscles are chronically shortened (from overdoing sit-ups and crunches) they will be unable to lengthen effectively.

So, ultimately the structures of the spine will experience excessive stress and strain as a result and corrective exercises to lengthen becomes important.3

The importance of lengthening the abdominals during abdominal training using corrective exercise.

Figure 1: Lengthen the abdominals using corrective exercise techniques to absorb impact

To safeguard your spine against injury, your abdominal training routine must include eccentric (or lengthening) training of the abdominals.

Below (see Figure 2) you will find a great corrective exercise for helping introduce an eccentric focused abdominal exercise.  By practicing the lengthening of your abdominals to slow down the spine as it extends you can retrain your abs to better handle stress as it is transferred into the body and the spine.

 

Eccentric crunch as a corrective exercise to lengthen the abs as part of an effective abdominal training routine.

Figure 2: Eccentric Crunch as a Corrective Exercise to lengthen the abdominals

Eccentric Crunch as a Corrective Exercise for Abdominal Training

Get into position

  • Sit on a gym ball (with your butt toward the back of the ball) approximately 2 feet away from the wall.
  • Place your feet on the wall (or onto a bench) and gently walk up/pull yourself toward it as you roll your butt forward on the ball. Eventually you want to end up lying on the ball with your feet on the wall or bench. (Place a chair beside you for balance when you first attempt this exercise, if necessary.)

Once in position

  • Lift your hips up and slowly lower your spine into extension (arching it) over the ball. The goal of this exercise is to strengthen your abdominals in a lengthening manner to safely lower your upper back over the ball, not to strengthen your abdominals by training flexion of the spine. As such, when you return to the start position do not curl your spine up to a position where it is past being parallel with the ground.

Form and repetitions

  • As you perform the lowering movement over the ball, be sure to keep your hips up and pelvis tilted under. Perform 8 to 20 repetitions for 1 to 3 sets 2 to 3 times a week.

A Summary of the Importance of Corrective Exercise for Abdominal Training

Properly designed abdominal training using corrective exercise techniques can be a very rewarding experience for both you and your clients. It can help improve the aesthetic look of the midsection while also strengthening the abdominal muscles effectively to protect the back from pain and injury.

Points to remember:

  • Sit- ups and crunches shorten abdominal muscles when overused in an abdominal training program.
  • Your abdominal training routine must include eccentric (or lengthening) exercises for the abdominal muscles.

Resources

To learn more from Justin Price about how to design corrective exercises that strengthen the body and safeguard it from injury, check out The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Specialist course available through the American Academy of Health and Fitness (AAHF).

And, also available from the American Academy of Health and Fitness (AAHF)

The five modules that make up the BioMechanics Method corrective Exercise Specialist course:

  1. The Fundamentals of Structural Assessment is Module 1 of The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Specialist course.
  2. Understanding Muscles and Movement is Module 2 of The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Specialist course.
  3. The Fundamentals of Corrective Exercise is Module 3 of The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Specialist course.
  4. The Complete Corrective Exercise Library is Module 4 of The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Specialist course.
  5. Corrective Exercise Program Design is Module 5 of The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Specialist course.

And two other courses possibly of interest from AAHF are:

  1. Back Stability: Integrating Science and Therapy home study CEC course
  2. Janda System of Evaluation and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance home study CEC course.

References:

1Bryant, C.X., and D.J. Green, eds. 2010. ACE Personal Trainer Manual: the Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals, 4th ed. San Diego, CA: 1American Council on Exercise.

2McGill, S. 2016. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics..

3Price, J. 2018. The BioMechanics Method for Corrective Exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Contributed By:

 Justin Price is one of the world’s foremost experts in musculoskeletal assessment and corrective exercise and creator of The BioMechanics Method Corrective Exercise Specialist certification (TBMM-CES) available through AAHF.  The BioMechanics Method is the fitness industry’s highest-rated CES credential with trained professionals in over 60 countries. Justin is also the author of several books including The BioMechanics Method for Corrective Exercise academic textbook, a former IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, and a subject matter expert for The American Council on Exercise, Human Kinetics, PTA Global, PTontheNET, TRX, BOSU, Arthritis Today, BBC, Discovery Health, Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, MSNBC, New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Wall Street Journal, WebMD and Tennis Magazine.