Back Problems, at the Core

One of the benefits I’ve received from my years of yoga and Pilates is a tremendous increase in core strength and stability. That I actually needed this came as a bit of a surprise to me, given my years as a martial artist.

Back then, I did about a million crunches in order to (1) be able to take a punch/kick in the guts and (2) get that beach body 6-pack (hey, I was young and vain). I was successful at both, but like my kung fu teacher would say, “You wanted the power, you didn’t ask the price.”

Yeah, I wanted the strength and looks, so I did all the crunch type exercises, but I never asked the price. Well, eventually I learned the price; back and postural problems. Particularly after I started driving a computer for a living.

Today on there’s an article on “The Best Exercises You’re Not Doing,” and I really think they buried the lede. Forget the exercises they talk about up front, it’s at the tail end of the article where the author includes a section, “The Case Against Crunches.” Main points:

  • They’re a posture killer.
  • The reinforce the weaknesses of a sedentary lifestyle.
  • They promote poor motor patterns.

For a guy who came into the healthy and fitness space because of postural problems, arising from a sedentary lifestyle and poor motor patterns, this is the key takeaway from the article. Seriously, I would have led with it.

But, lead with it or not, it’s in there and I wholeheartedly agree. As I journeyed through my postural correction I learned that we all hunch over. A lot. We hunch to eat, to drive, to work, to watch TV, to check our phones. I swear, every single chair found in a public place is Medieval torture device, designed to hurt your lower back.

Now, a  I’ve written a couple of articles  on building core strength, and doing so in a spine and posture healthy way. What I didn’t really do is delve into why to do it without crunches. So here goes.

Crunches are bad. They’re bad for the reasons summarized by the livestrong article, but it doesn’t stop there. Let’s go deeper.

First, yes, they’re a posture killer. They require lumbar flexion, bending the lower spine in the direction opposite to its natural curve. So you train your lower back to flatten, or even reverse its natural curve, but the problem is that it doesn’t stop there. As you’re flexing your lumbar spine, you’re stressing your lumbar discs and overstretching the muscles and connective tissues in your lower back. Pinched nerves and herniated lumbar discs, anyone?

Crunches (and their evil step twins sit-ups) don’t just require lumbar flexion, they require dynamic (moving) lumbar flexion. Doing crunches is basically yanking on your lower back. If you’ve already got low back problems, crunches are going to aggravate them. Ahem… pinched nerves and herniated lumbar discs, anyone?

Next, crunches only exercise one set of muscles, and only in one direction. Yes, you get your 6-pack. You get nice big, strong abdominal muscles. Strength in the front. And nowhere else. Core strength is not just about 6-pack abs. Your core is a band of muscles that goes all around, supporting and stabilizing your lower spine. In anything, if you have unbalanced strength, you’re risking injury elsewhere, especially on the opposite side.

Then you have the issue of hard, tight muscles in front, and weak, stretched muscles in back. You are literally training your body to hunch forward, placing a permanent extra load on your lower spine.

I never actually realized this was a problem for me until I began a yoga regime that stressed healthy back movement. Then I discovered that a good number of things I’d been told about backs, and yoga, were…how can I put this gently…utter crap.

There are yoga styles that integrate sit-ups, postures with lumbar flexion, and postures with loaded lumbar flexion. You know, don’t just bend your lower back, grab hold of your feet or ankles and pull. If you’ve already got back issues, doing this stuff is going to aggravate them in the most awful way.

Then there are the Pilates classes that tell you to “impress your lower spine on the floor.” Yes, take your already badly curved lower back, push it into the floor and lock it there. That way you’ll teach your lumbar spine to permanently hold itself in the wrong shape.

To both of these I say, “NO.”

“But Andrew, you’ve been touting yoga and Pilates as the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle.”

Yes, yes I have. But as with anything, you must learn the strengths and weaknesses of both your body, and any exercise program you intend to try. There’s a reason gyms and workout videos and the like all have disclaimers telling you to consult your doctor.

You see, in addition to my main theme of, a healthy lifestyle with vigorous exercise, I also firmly believe, above all else, exercise must serve you. If it doesn’t serve you, modify it so it does, or don’t do it at all. I might have even written a multi part series on modifying my favourite yoga class to that very end.

Because if your exercises aren’t serving you, well, they’re really not very healthy.