A Mass General fitness expert advises which exercises are best for strengthening the core muscles of our hips and low back and discusses the six-pack ab myth.

Scientific evidence guides practice in many areas of modern life. Medicine, engineering and technology have been steered to better methods by science. The same could be true for exercise, where research on the body’s movement and function can help us improve how we train.

Yet, despite the research there are certain abdominal and low back (core) exercises that are ineffective and could be harmful that remain popular.

Favorite exercises like abdominal crunches, sit-ups and low back extensions put undue stress on the low back and are not good choices for most people. I advise my fitness clients to use different movements to strengthen their core.

Strengthen Core Muscles

Most often, core muscles act together to brace the spine against excessive motion while the hips and shoulders move.

The core is essentially comprised of the hips, low back and abdomen, but the entire spine up to the neck can be included when considering core training. There are more than two dozen muscles that attach to these areas that influence core function and stability.

Most often, core muscles act together to brace the spine against excessive motion while the hips and shoulders move. Some muscles, like external obliques (muscles on the outer abdomen) and rectus abdominus (six-pack ab muscles) can create movement, like during a sit-up — but that doesn’t mean we should train them that way.

In fact, the stress created by sit-ups, crunches and back extension exercises is a strong mechanism for low back injury. Now that we know the risk associated with these movements, we need to change how we train.

If you have been using crunches and other “old school” abdominal exercises, you might be asking, “OK, so what do I do now?”

Exercises to Strengthen Your Core


Bird Dog

Start from your hands and knees with a neutral low back posture (slight curve toward belly button). Alternate reaching one arm and the opposite leg straight out without moving your low back or pelvis. Do one to three sets of 5 to 10 on each side.


Dying Bug

Lie on your back with arms over your shoulders and knees over your hips. Reach one arm back overhead and the opposite leg straight out. Hold your core stable so your low back doesn’t flatten into the floor or arch up. Do one to three sets of 5 to 10 on each side.


Hook Lying Side Plank

Lie on one side with feet pulled up behind you and your elbow under your shoulder. Raise your hips up to form a straight line with your body, then return to the floor. Do one to three sets of 5 to 15 on each side.

How to Make Changes

Stop doing crunches. Don’t do them on the floor, on a slant board or on a machine. Stop doing sit-ups, twisting crunches, hanging leg raises, side bends and back extensions. Eliminate machine-based core training, except for pulleys. Machines can’t mimic the subtleties of human movement and force the body to work in unnatural ways. It’s best to train core muscles to stabilize the low back because that will help you most in your life outside of the gym.

Use exercises that challenge your low back stability from different directions. Exercises like planks, bridges, bird dogs, rollouts, pulley rotations, chops and lifts, and Turkish get-ups are just a handful of great movements to work core stability while saving the spine.

Six-pack abs are a matter of reducing body fat, mainly through diet, and have little to do with core training.

What About Six-pack Abs?

An inevitable question I get, is, “What about six pack abs?”

My answer: Six-pack abs are a matter of reducing body fat, mainly through diet, and have little to do with core training.

Unless gifted with the right genetics, six-pack abs can be very difficult to attain. Lowering body fat to a level where abdominal muscles can be clearly seen takes dedication and sacrifice that is unsustainable for many people.

For women, decreasing body fat to very low levels is unhealthy and can cause adverse hormonal issues to arise. But if washboard abs are a must-have goal, start by finding a nutrition plan that works for you, make sure to get plenty of sleep and balance strength training and cardiovascular exercise to preserve muscle while lowering body fat.

I believe a better approach is to exercise to improve function and vitality, establish healthy dietary habits and good sleep routines. Focusing on improving your health allows your body shape to change organically without worrying about it.

 

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Mike Bento is an advanced trainer at The Clubs at Charles River Park and Massachusetts General Hospital. He holds a master’s degree in human movement and is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a corrective exercise specialist and performance enhancement specialist.