by Dr. Bingham, DC, DACRB

If you have mentioned doing crunches in ear shot of me, you have undoubtedly suffered through my diatribe on the evils of sit-ups and crunches, sorry but I do it because I care.   I am not the only one who feels this way, Stuart McGill talks about the damage to the lower back  by crunches in this video.

After I step down from my soapbox I will almost always get this question, “but what can I do to strengthen my abs?”  This is when I say, “boy are you in luck, we have just the thing for you.”  Now this is not an infomercial for the newest “Beach Body More Insane Than The Most Insane Workout,” this is a recommendation from a guy who believes that evidence based research is a better path than hype.   Before I get to the big answer, I want to talk to you about your posture.

Since you are reading this I can safely assume that you’re in front of some type of screen.  Regardless of the type of screen, I can also safely assume that  your current posture might look like the woman in the picture below.

Bored Female Office Worker At Desk

Hopefully your posture is not as bad as this poor woman, but look around your office and I am sure you will see this posture and even worse.  So, what does poor posture have to do with getting those six-pack abs?  Notice in the picture above that the woman is rounding her back and compressing or shortening her abdominals.  This woman is going to sit in this ab-shortened position for 8-10 hours and then head off to the gym where she will do more ab shortening, eg. crunches.  She will continue to shorten the ab muscles, which pull on the back and round it forward (see picture above).

Play along at home.

Find yourself a full body mirror and stand as tall as you can; now let your back round and slump forward.  Let me guess, you belly just got bigger when you slumped, which is exactly what we do when we lay on our backs and crunch our abs.

Save your Back

Ok, we have covered how crunches and sit-ups shorten the abdominal muscles and push out your belly.  Sit-ups and crunches also have a deleterious affect on the lower back.  Our lower back likes to be in a C-shape like the picture below but when we sit with a rounded lower back or do crunches we reverse the curve in the lower back put strain on the muscles, ligaments and discs (indicated in red).  This is why it is important to follow your mother’s well intentioned advice about sitting up straight.

Spinal cord under pressure of bulging disc


So, what exercise can I do for my abs?

A study in Physical Therapy in Sport from last month showed that the exercise that activated the abdominal muscles the most was….. The Plank on the Exercise Ball!  Why is this so exciting?  Well, we have know that the plank is one of the safest excises for the lower back but now we know that is is the most effective exercise for strengthening the abdominals,  a win-win!

Even though the plank is one of the safest exercises for the lower back, you can hurt yourself, especially when adding an unstable surface like an exercise ball.  Watch the video below for proper form and start slow with this exercise.

If you have any questions, please add them to the content section below.