The best way to protect your back is to strengthen your abdominals, therefore performing crunches and “hollowing out” your abs will keep your back healthy; right? Well, no. Years ago, fitness experts advised pressing your back to the ground and performing abdominal crunches or curls to build a healthy back, but no longer. In fact, Dr. Stuart McGill, (http://www.backfitpro.com/) a leading authority on back pain, believes the crunch (or spinal flexion) is among the worst exercises you can do for your back. His research shows that if you do enough spinal flexion (curl ups, sit-ups, imprinting, scooping out the back etc.) then you will eventually hurt your back. He is far from alone; the trend in the rehab and fitness industries is to focus on stabilization training. This means training the abdominals to work as a unit to support the back.
While not all back experts are ready to totally ban the crunch there is a consensus on minimizing spinal flexion. Since rolling like a ball, rounding and C curves are cornerstones of some Pilates practices I can hear the Pilates adherents howling. McGill is not dissing all of Pilates; he emphasizes the importance of training the core, but he insists that the worst cue is to press the spine into the floor as this causes compression, and eventually a bulge in the disc. Many Pilates organizations are now backing away from spinal flexion, and are de-emphasizing the “C curve”. If you take Pilates, it would be a good idea to speak to your instructor about this, especially if you have back problems. There is no evidence that activating the transverse abdominus (or hollowing out the back) will protect your back or enhance performance.
Be aware that we are talking about training the abdominals to function better, not to look better. If your goal is solely aesthetic, then keep crunching, but be prepared for back problems somewhere down the road. The best way to protect and strengthen your back is to train the entire abdominal wall. Train the body as a unit, not as individual muscles. You can do that through “bracing”. Bracing is an activation of all the layers of the abdominal wall. The easiest way to learn to brace is to pretend you are about to be punched in the stomach; you will feel the abdominals contract, (as well as your lower back and buttocks) but there will be no discernible movement. Once you have learned to brace you can apply it to a variety of exercises that will help protect and strengthen your back, and oh, will also help you get that six-pack. More on those next time.