Ah, the coveted “crunch”. When it comes to abdominal exercisesSit-ups are probably the first that come to mind, and understandably so. It’s long been hailed as the gateway to the realm of six pack abs: do enough crunches and you’ll be sure to develop abs as strong and herculean as, well, the Greek hero himself. If you’re anything like me, you’ve believed this promise and have spent countless hours doing sit-ups throughout your life. Also like me, if you wondered why you were starting to struggle with back pain, then what I’m about to tell you could be life changing: The crunches may be hurting you more than they are helping you and it might be time for a change.
What’s the deal with abs?
I spoke to two experts on the subject and they both argued that while abs are not inherently “bad” and do strengthening your abdominal muscles (and it might even lead to that good old-fashioned six-pack), they’re really just engaging the top layer of your core. When the upper abdominal layer (also known as the rectum abdomen) is all that is activated, the deepest layer (the transversus abdominis) is left in the lurch. “The six-pack, rectus abdominis, is part of your core drive, but it’s not the whole story,” he said. jesse true loveappersonal trainer and the program director and trainer for both the Birth Recovery Center and the move your bump Applications “Many times, people who dominate the abdominals also have hyperactive back muscles or chronic back pain.”
When your transverse abdominals are left unattended, your core strength is seriously hampered. “This can lead to a decrease in core stability and integrity, and actually contribute to core injuries and dysfunctions, such as back pain and diastasis recti (separated abdominal muscles),”, said Leah Keller, founder and COO of the Every Mother Workout App. We usually only hear about dialysis recti in pregnancy circles, and even then, it’s not discussed much. It is most commonly related to pregnancy because the pressure of a growing baby lump can pull the abdominals apart. “In these cases, performing sit-ups can create excessive intra-abdominal pressure towards the pelvic floor and lower abs,” Truelove explained.
Bottom line: If you’re pregnant or postpartum, talk to your doctor about which exercises are healthier for you. For anyone, know that crunches are not the end of all for total core strength and could even hurt you if you don’t focus on total core strength.
Should we avoid sit-ups altogether?
As these experts say, sit-ups aren’t inherently bad for you, and therefore don’t need to be avoided entirely (unless your doctor, trainer, etc. have advised you to stay away). Instead, it is about not trusting on abs and instead build strength in deeper layers of the core for optimal core health (beyond what a six-pack might show). So don’t feel like you have to quit if you love a good crisis series, as long as you also focus on the transverse abdominis (or the deeper layer that the abdominals do not work).
“The TVA is a muscle group that acts like a corset around your body,” Truelove explained. “It’s the deepest layer of your core unit and one of your biggest spinal stabilizers.” If you can strengthen this part of your core, your back, lower abs, and pelvic floor will all benefit.“When we activate the transversus abdominis, we cause a natural co-contraction of the deep core muscles, including the pelvic floor, lumbar multifidus, diaphragm, and quadratus lumborum,” agreed Keller. That sounds a lot better than a six pack, doesn’t it?
How should we start working the transversus abdominis?
This is where a little guidance goes a long way, at least in the beginning. Sure, you could type “transverse crunches” into YouTube and search for the exercises that come up, but if you’re already suffering from back pain, ab separation, or pelvic floor issues, I recommend working one-on-one with an expert (a few sessions can help). Make a Difference). They can help him learn to recognize what it feels like by engaging his transverse muscles and offering appropriate exercises that meet his specific needs.
I personally found a lot of value in training apps like Keller’s every mother and from Truelove move your bump. They’re aimed at people who are or plan to be pregnant, but I think they’re great tools for anyone who wants to learn how to work those deep abdominal muscles. “The general public would benefit greatly from becoming more in tune with their deep core and pelvic floor rather than opting for thousands of reps of traditional core exercises,” Truelove said. I totally agree.
In fact, I started using the Every Mother app in an attempt to treat my back pain long before I planned to get pregnant. And I noticed a real difference when I did the exercises regularly. My back pain subsided, and although I wasn’t exactly developing a six pack, my abs started to look flatter, as a result of lifting and contracting my abs instead of pushing them out. I also noticed that it was easier to maintain better posture throughout the day as my TVA got stronger. I continued to use the app when I finally got pregnant, and guess what? I never developed diastasis recti. On top of that, after having my baby, my abs seemed to heal much faster than projected.
How do you know if you’re really engaging the right muscles?
Unlike upper crunches, feeling the transverse crunches engage isn’t very intuitive (and you don’t want to do a bunch of exercises ineffectively). Fortunately, there are a couple of tricks that can help you figure out if these abs are working. Keller suggested a step-by-step approach: “Eexhale on activation to safely manage intra-abdominal pressure to protect your back, core, and pelvic floor; think of squeezing and lifting both your navel and pelvic floor ‘up and in’ as you exhale; and avoid any movement or bending that protrudes the abdominal wall forward, which can compromise the integrity of the abdominal wall and lead to injury.”
Personally, I like to imagine an inverted triangle connecting the pubic bone to the two hip bones. As you exhale, as Keller suggested, imagine squeezing the points of the triangle. This helps me draw and enter naturally. Truelove explained it as a feeling of flattening of the abdominal wall instead of pushing on it. Of course, working with a specialist in person is the most effective way to determine where you are and whether or not you’re effectively exercising those deep muscles.
What should you do instead of sit-ups?
Keller suggested swapping crunches for a modified plank with the knees on the ground. “In that position, pull your belly toward your spine in a slow, controlled rhythm that coordinates each exhalation with a stronger core squeeze and each shallow inhalation with a smooth, partial release,” he explained. He can also try exercises like the dead bug, cat cow or Pilates 100. Regardless of which exercise you choose, Keller stressed that it’s important to rest when you feel fatigued to ensure you don’t lose control of your core activation.
If you don’t want to give up your tried-and-true abs, Truelove recommends approaching them with more mindful awareness. “Bloated out belly, pelvic floor pressure, leaks, back pain, etc. These are all signs that your kernel is not tolerating the load and it’s time to tweak it.” If he finds that to be the case, he suggested slowing down and reducing your range of motion until your body can handle the pressure of the crunch. “Your belly should be able to stay even and flat when you do your sit-ups or any abdominal exercises.”
At the end of the day, your body is yours and you can choose the exercises that feel best for you. If abs are your thing, go for it! But you don’t have to stick with something just because it’s popular. The more tools you have in your toolkit, the more confident you can be in your choices. Knowledge is power, as they say, and in this case, that power is physical.