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Not All Core Strength Exercises Good for Back Pain

15 July 2013  |  Admin

Not all “core-strength” exercises good for spine
Written By, On July 15, 2013

At the Chiropractic Clinic in Market Harborough and the Chiropractic Clinic in Melton Mowbray we all too often see patients with back problems that have made them worse after taking up an exercise case to improve their back pain.

Classic traditional exercises can often be at fault in these cases. Such as sit-ups which have been a well known problem for years in spinal rehabilitation clinics such as ours.

Why sit-ups can be BAD for your body (and that wobbly gym ball won’t help either)

The area of the body that gets most attention at gyms is the ‘core’. Workouts promising to hone your midsection so it not only looks good but supports your back and posture have become the norm. There is also a never-ending range of ‘core’ equipment, from core boards to semi-sphere balance trainers. But some experts now suggest so-called core-training classes and equipment are largely a waste of time and an unnecessary fad. ‘There’s a lot of nonsense out there,’ says Professor Stuart McGill, director of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Many experts believe that the principles of core fitness have been taken out of context by the industry

Many experts believe that the principles of core fitness have been taken out of context by an industry intent on making millions.

In one study, on rowers who followed an eight-week core-training gym programme in addition to their normal training, there was no improvement in a rowing-machine time trial at the end of the study.

It is something of a nebulous term, but the ‘core’ is generally acknowledged to be the complex corset of muscles and connective tissue that encircle the spine to hold it in place. There is no doubt that strong core muscles are crucial — they help to stabilise the trunk, enabling your legs to transfer power to your upper body so you can do everything from running and weight training to carrying shopping. By protecting the spine, they also help to prevent injury.

Crucially, it’s not just the abdominal muscles that create the sought-after ‘six-pack’ and midsection strength — all the muscles that girdle the spine need to be worked if improvements are to be noticed. ‘Training the core is essential to carry heavy loads, run fast and change direction quickly,’ says Professor McGill. ‘It determines the rate of speed for movement of the arms and legs. And a stable core is needed even for that most essential of human movements, the ability to walk. ’What irks him and others is that the concept has become so over-complicated and prone to inaccuracy, and is used to market useless equipment. ‘I don’t even use the word “core” any more, as what we are really referring to is the “trunk” area,’ says strength and conditioning expert Richard Kingston, a member of the British Association of Sports and Exercise Sciences.

‘It got horribly misconstrued by the gym industry in the last decade. Furthermore, exercises on a wobbly ball and similar devices won’t target the right range of muscles effectively.’

Recent research suggests that many devices that claim to work your core muscles fall well short of their promise. In one recent study, at the Liberty University in Virginia, researchers measured the degree to which core muscles were activated using a variety of equipment. The results showed that some, including sliding ‘core boards’ (which slide from side to side or back and forth, supposedly to target the midriff) offered no greater benefit than traditional crunches and sit-ups. Thomas Nesser, a professor of physical education at Indiana State University, says ‘you don’t need to be half-hanging off a bench and twisting dumb-bells’ to strengthen your core muscles.

Some common core exercises, even those not involving equipment, are downright risky, says Richard Kingston. ‘Instructors who tell people to “engage their core” before they perform an exercise are asking for trouble.

‘There was this theory that by “engaging” or drawing in the core you would target the deeply embedded transversus abdominus muscle, a thin band that holds the guts in. We now know that the practice leads to people squeezing their abdominal muscles, leaving the back unstable. It’s completely wrong and the reason so many people get hurt when they exercise.’

And old-fashioned crunches and sit-ups, still the most popular core exercises, are also not the recommended route to a stronger middle. If these are all you do, the results are not only likely to be superficial but can overload the spine in a dangerous way, says Professor McGill. His own studies have demonstrated that repeated bending of the spine, as happens when we do crunches, can damage spinal discs over time. In one trial, several spines of pigs were placed in machines that bent and flexed them hundreds of times to replicate sit-ups.

The spinal discs were almost completely ruptured by the end of the experiments.

There is a safe variation, though, says Professor McGill. Called the curl-up, it involves keeping your back slightly arched on the floor with your hands (palms down) under the small of your back to lessen the pressure on the spine. Bend your knees and lift your head and shoulders very slightly. ‘You don’t need to crunch up much to get the desired response from your entire abdominal muscle complex,’ he says.

Less is often more in the case of spinal rehabilitation. We try and instill this principle in our patients, but everyone is looking for the quick fix, and train too hard for too long and damage the spine.

Some experts go even further, suggesting that core training can be ditched altogether. Professor Nesser says: ‘Train for a sport and core strength will develop in the right way for that sport.’ Richard Kingston says a strong midriff does mean a strong body, but that the best trunk-strengthening moves are performed standing up with little or no equipment. Using your own bodyweight to twist, rotate and lean the trunk in a variety of ways gives the best results, he says.

All our exercise can be done at home with no special equipment, but we find that time and time again that maintaining spinal exercises over the years is simply not done. When the pain goes away people stop the exercises only to have the pain return again and again for years to come. Choosing to have some regular sessions to maintain a weakened back will help manage such conditions more effectively.

If you would like some expert advise regarding your back problems please call either the Chiropractic Clinic in Market Harborough on 01858 414841 or the Chiropractic Clinic in Melton Mowbray on 01664 561199.

Call Melton Mowbray Clinic: 01664 561199
Call Market Harborough Clinic: 01858 414841

The Chiropractic Clinic

Market Harborough & Melton Mowbray