Exercises for Abs
No More Crunches! No More Back Pain!
By Dr. Jolie Bookspan
Why “Do” Abs?
Most people don’t know what abs specifically “do” or how. You’ve heard that abdominal muscles help your back, but exactly how? Your “abs” have something to do with posture? But exactly what? You know something vague about “support” but what does that really mean? “Crunches” are practically synonymous with ab exercises but are terrible for your posture and don’t work your abs the way you need for real life. What can you do instead? Using abs doesn’t mean sucking them in or making them tight. Then how do you use them? Did you know that you need your abs while standing up and walking, and particularly while standing and walking with tanks on your back? How can you do that?
What’s Wrong With Crunches?
It’s practically universal to see a gym full of people yanking their necks doing crunches, then stand up and walk away with no use of abs, or knowledge that you are supposed to use abs when standing up. Crunches don’t work your abs the way you need for real life. Crunches don’t train you how to use your abs the rest of the day. Crunches promote poor posture, even when done properly. Crunches make a person, who likely spends much of their day already hunched over a work area, practice that hunched posture which may be mechanically promoting the back and neck pain they think they are working their abs to prevent.
What Does It Mean To Use Your Abs?
Using your abs does not mean “sucking them in,” or “tightening them,” or “pressing your navel to your spine.” Using abs means contracting them, not tightening them, to move your body just like any other muscles. Abs connect from your ribs to your hips. When they shorten, they pull your ribs and hips closer, bending your spine forward. You don’t have to curl forward to use your abs. Using them properly while standing means not allowing your back to sway, and instead, keep your torso upright.
When you stand up and don’t use your abdominal muscles, that allows your ribs and hips to be too far apart. Your low back sways, exaggerating the normal backward curve. Too much of this kind of arching lets the weight of your upper back press down on your lower back, grinding away your soft tissues and discs, and irritating the joints where each vertebra attaches to the next.
Use all your ab muscles working (not tightening) to consciously keep your torso from arching to the back or side, not just be pulled forward, back, or side under the weight of the loads you carry or your body weight. It’s a free workout.
To understand what abs do for your posture when they contract, try this:
* Stand up and put one hand on the front of your ribs where your abs begin. Put your other hand on the front of your hip bone where your abs end. Hold these two points with your fingers.
* Draw your two hands toward each other, curling your torso forward. Hold that position. That is what crunches do for you. They hunch you over you forward. How much do you use this posture in real life?
* Now still holding onto your ribs and hip bone, arch back and let your ribs lift up and your abdomen curve out. See how the distance between your two hands increases, showing how ab muscles lengthen when slack, allowing your back to arch. Feel your body weight fall onto your low back? That is what not using your abs allows—an arched back and your weight smashing your low back. You even become shorter.
* Now pull your two hands on your ribs and hips toward each other so the distance between your ribs and hips decreases. Your torso will come upright to a straightened, taller position (Don’t curl so much that you round forward). This shows how you use your abs to control posture and stop the strain of flopping your body weight on your low back. This is how you need your abs working to stand up properly.
Contracting your abs changes the shape of your torso by pulling your spine forward. You want to do this just enough to take out excess arching so your upper body weight doesn’t slump onto your low back. You don’t want to do this so much that you round forward ape-like, which many people not only do all day, but practice in a gym with crunches.
How To Use Abs While Standing and Walking With Scuba Tanks
Tanks and gear bags don’t make you arch your back or have bad posture. Not using your torso muscles to counter the pull, and allowing your back to arch is the problem. Try this:
* Stand up wearing tanks, or any heavy backpack. Stand sideways to see your profile in a mirror.
* Allow the weight of the tank or gearbag to pull your upper body backward or sideways, and increase the arch in your back. This is standing up without using your abs. (Don’t do this if you get back pain.) You’ll probably feel the old familiar pressure in your low back.
* Now straighten your body as if starting to do a crunch, against the pull of the load on your back. Don’t allow your behind to stick out or your neck to crane forward. Tuck your behind in slightly to take the exaggerated arch out of your back. This is how you stand up using your abs to maintain proper posture against a posterior load.
Maintain your posture when carrying gear. Don’t lean back, hunch forward, or hike your body to the sides to carry the weight. Use your muscles. Use this ab technique all the time when standing and walking with scuba tanks, and climbing the boat ladder. Your gear could be a built-in ab exercise.
How To Use Abs While Passing Gear Up To The Boat
You need to use your abs to maintain torso posture when reaching for things and lifting things overhead. This is when most people have no concept of abs, and because of that, allow their upper body weight plus the weight of their packages to smash their low backs, dozens of times daily doing things as innocuous as putting things on shelves, pulling shirts off, even combing and washing hair. Imagine the damage when improperly lifting heavy equipment and supplies overhead. Try this:
* Stand up and reach overhead. See if you allow your ribs to lift up and your back to arch.
* To fix that, straighten your body by curling enough forward, as if starting to do a crunch, to take the exaggerated curve out of your low back until you feel you are using your torso muscles to hold your body weight. Don’t curl your body or neck forward.
* Now reach overhead again. Wave your arms around. Keep your torso from increasing the arch no matter what.
* Now try it while lifting weights overhead. If you use your abs properly, you’ll feel a new strength in your torso.
Transfer this skill to your daily life for healthy torso posture for lifting gear, putting cargo up on roof racks, heavy packages up on counters, and whenever you lift and reach. Don’t lean backward when carrying things. Your gear could be a built-in ab exercise when you stand up using your abs to maintain proper posture against an anterior load.
How To Use Your Abs When Swimming
All of these same principles of using your abs when standing apply to swimming horizontally through the water. Many divers allow their weight belt to pull their back into an exaggerated arch, making them look like they are facedown in a hammock. The fulcrum of the kick becomes their low back joints instead of the muscles of the abs and hip. Use your abs to straighten your posture against the pull of your belt and gear. Your body will be streamline, your kick will be powerful, and your back will be grateful.
It’s Not Arching Alone That is Bad
You are supposed to have a small inward curve in your low back. Arching your back, by itself, is not the problem in back pain and posture control. The problem is not using muscles to keep your upper body weight off your low back. This is often confused, and some people think they must never arch their back. Back extension is, in fact, one of the most important exercises for back health. Crucial back exercises for strengthening require range of motion to an extended position. The supported arch is important to use for tennis, gymnastics, yoga, stretching, and other activities. Many people don’t know to use their abs during these kinds of moves, and just allow their low back to fold backward under all their weight. By holding your upper body weight with your abs you can lean and extend back without your weight pressing onto your low back. It’s estimated that eight of 10 people develop back pain in their life, almost all preventable. Most is simple mechanics.
What’s Wrong With The Way Things Are?
Why not just do ab exercises to prevent all the problems? A recent fitness industry survey looked at common ab exercises and ranked them from most to least effective in using ab muscles. The problem is that the surveyors completely missed three basic concepts. An exercise can work a specific muscle but still promote bad posture and not be good for the rest of you. Even if an exercise will activate your ab muscles more than another exercise, it still may not be useful for things you need for daily life. Simply strengthening a muscle will not transfer the posture skills you need for proper use in sports and recreation, or for back pain control.
The “experts” say to do crunches for strong muscles to “support” you. But strengthening alone will not fix your posture or your back pain. Plenty of people with strong muscles have terrible posture. It’s like having brains and not using them.
It’s a Revolution
Next time you are standing around noticing your back hurts, check if you are standing and moving in a way that is wrecking your back because you are not using your muscles. Notice if you are letting your body weight, and the weight of your gear, smash down on your low back. Check if your belt or waistband tilts downward in front and up in back, showing that you may be arching your back instead of holding straight posture. Use your muscles to tip your hip back under you and lift your weight up and off your low back.
Discard the outdated and misleading notion of “tightening” your abs, or any muscles to use them, or the old “press navel to spine.” You cannot breathe properly or function that way, and walking around with “tight” muscles is a factor in headaches and stress/strain related muscle pain.
Yes, this is new and different from what we learned in school. That’s why it’s a revolution in ab fitness. It will change your whole way of thinking about abs and teach you exciting new skills to be a fitter, pain free, and healthier diver. You’ll get ab exercise without going to a gym. You’ll stand taller. You’ll burn calories. You’ll save your back. You’ll exercise your brain. It’s a revolution.
Information in this article was excerpted from “The Ab Revolution™ by Dr. Jolie Bookspan. The new expanded second edition has 111 jam-packed pages of comprehensive, step-by-step concepts and instructions to develop and use your abs for “real life,” from the simplest daily life activities to the most advanced and challenging maneuvers. The Ab Revolution™ is used by SEAL team and law enforcement and the nation’s top spine and rehabilitation centers.