Wednesday, January 21, 2009

No More Crunches? Here are Four Reasons Why

Walk into any gym and you will see people lying down doing crunches or sit ups. I admit it, until a few years ago; I included a bunch of them into my own workouts as well as my athlete’s workouts. But as I studied and grew to understand the true function of the anterior core muscles (rectus abdominus, internal oblique, external oblique, and the Transverse Abdominus), I began to change my approach to abdominal training. I now do very few, if any crunches or sit ups. As a sports performance and fitness coach, it is my job to do what is most effective, not to do things just to kill time. Here are three reasons why I choose not to incorporate these movements into our workouts.

Reason One: Sit Ups and Crunches Reinforce Bad Posture
It’s amazing how many things your Mom and Dad told you when you were a child end up being true. When they said “Sit up Straight!” they knew what they were talking about! Never in history have humans done so much sitting. Office jobs force individuals to stay seated in a chair most of the day and not only do they sit while at work, many go home and sit on the couch to watch their favorite TV show (mine is The Andy Griffith Show by the way). Almost everyone has a vehicle and drives everywhere they go. I am a great example. Each time I fill up with a new tank of gas, I always restart my timer in the truck to keep track of how long I spend in my truck driving around on each tank of gas. On average, it is anywhere between 10-12 hours per tank and I fill up at least every 2 weeks. That is around 20-24 hours every month! The bottom line is over time our bodies slowly adapt to the seated posture we spend so much time in which causes all sorts of movement compensations and muscle imbalances. This forward posture also causes the spine to constantly be in a flexed position which has been shown to lead to disk injuries in the spine.
Having good posture is a critical part to staying healthy and pain free. Because sit ups and crunches actually cause the spine to flex, they are not ideal for training the abdominals. I have inserted a picture of me doing a crunch and then turned it upright as if I were standing or sitting at a desk. Pay close attention to the position of my spine (yellow line). In athletics or in everyday activities, this position can cause and will cause injuries.

Reason Two: Flexing the Abdominals is not the function of the Abdominals during normal movement patterns
Open any human anatomy book and it will say that the abdominal muscles job is trunk flexion (shoulders towards knees or foward posture). There is no arguing that the abdominals do flex the trunk but in everyday activities or in “functional anatomy”, their main function is to avoid trunk extension and to help stabilize your spine while you reach, swing, grab, kick, push, or pull. During any movement, spinal and core stabilization is very important. You don’t think about it, but the first muscle to fire when you reach to pick something up is the Transverse Abdominus muscle. It works together with the external and internal obliques and the rectus abdominis to stabilize your core so you can pick something up without your spine collapsing. Abdominals should be trained to stabilize the spine to assure that they perform in a timely manner when they are activated.

Reason Three: Doing Sit Ups and Crunches Can Negatively Affect Performance
We established earlier that sit ups and crunches reinforce bad posture and can be downright dangerous is done over time. Because I work with a lot of golfers and athletes it is important to discuss how bad posture affects the ability to perform efficiently and pain free. The posture created when performing a crunch is referred to as “C-Posture” because it is shaped like a C (refer to picture above). C-posture through time causes certain muscles to become tight and other muscles to become lengthened. The lengthened muscles become inhibited and shut down (not a good thing) causing joint dysfunctions and muscle imbalances. On top of the inhibition, C-posture greatly reduces your ability to rotate and create power. If you are sitting at your desk reading this right now I want you to try something. Sit in “C-Posture” and rotate to your right and then to your left. Pay attention to how far you rotate. Then, sit up with a “tall spine” and rotate to your right and left again. Compare the difference. Bottom line here? The ability to rotate your shoulders is greatly deminished if you are in C-posture.” When you have to rotate, your body will compensate by rotating the lumbar (low back region) to gain the range of motion. This can leas to low back pain.

In rotation dominate sports such as golf, tennis, baseball and softball the inability to rotate the spine causes many problems as well. Take the golf swing for example. In a golf swing, the more you can rotate your shoulders over your hips and get separation, the more energy you can store thus leading to a more powerful swing. To initiate the downswing, the pelvis fires first creating a lot of energy which is then transferred to the trunk which in turn transfers that energy to the lead arm and finally to the hands and club through the ball. Any breakdown to this sequence causes “energy leaks” which will lead to a loss of power, accuracy, and consistency. Because of this, it is imperative to train athletes to maintain a stable spine in the presence of movement. Again, sit ups and crunches are not the answer.

Reason Four: Doing Sit Ups and Crunches will not give you a Six Pack
Despite what the late night infomercials try to convince you, lying down on your back and doing abdominal crunches and sit ups won’t give you a six pack in 8 weeks. The fact is, everyone has abdominal muscles but on some individuals, they are not as exposed. Slowed metabolisms, inactivity, and bad diets can play a major role in how well the abdominal musculature is exposed. You can flatten your belly by the way your train your abdominals. Learning to “draw in” or to tighten your abdominals is a great way to flatten your stomach. Imagine that you just pulled up the tightest pair of jeans you have every tried on. The only way you could zip them up would be to draw in your belly button and get as skinny as you can. Tightening your abdominals, or “drawing in” automatically makes your stomach flatter and more importantly, it stabilizes your spine. Once you learn to draw in, make sure you learn how to breathe normally in that position and you will be well on your way to a flat stomach. The key to exposing the abdominal muscles is to lose body fat.

So what is the most effective way to train the anterior core musculature?
I will be posting on that soon! Until then, draw in your belly button and “sit up straight”!

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