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Thanks to all on your feedback and questions on my previous post. It would be great to start a dialog on this; so please feel free to use the comment button below the post, that way we can all discuss your questions.
As for your comments and questions:
1. Can I do sit ups?
Sit ups are as bad as curl ups, and in fact are worse; once you lift more than your shoulder blades off the floor you rely on your hip flexors more than the abdominals.
2. What about crunches on the ball?
If you must do crunches, then performing them on the stability ball is a slightly better option. You need only do a few to really work the abs. In addition, if you limit the range of motion to only lifting the shoulder blades, you can minimize the amount of spinal flexion.
3. What is hollowing out?
Hollowing out, pressing your back into the ground, imprinting, scooping, sucking in the abs, are all terms fitness and Pilates instructors have used to try to get participants to activate the transverse abdominus muscle. This is a deep abdominal muscle that works when you exhale. It was once believed that activating this muscle separately was necessary for spinal stabilization. Research does not support this, and as Dr. McGill states pressing the spine into the floor actually causes compression of the spine.
4. My back is better since I've done Pilates (or crunches or curl ups etc).
Great, but most back pain is caused by cumulative trauma. Over time high amounts of flexion will cause a bulge in the disc. Of course, every individual will tolerate this differently; it may take decades for problems to show up. You should also be aware of the "magical" effect of exercise. Put a sedentary person on ANY sort of exercise program (Yoga, Pilates, Spinning, walking etc) and he or she will feel better and have more energy. Even if the program is dangerous enough to cause long term trauma, in the short term you will almost always feel better.
5. So how do I safely work my abs and help my back?
Stay tuned for the next post.