The six-pack has long been desirable. Of late, it has become almost a must-have fashion accessory. But did you know getting one could get you hurt?
Can we all have six-packs?
Actually, we have them already! The six-pack is just the abdominal muscle called the rectus abdominis. Can you see yours? That depends on how much endurance and strength this muscle possesses. But “well defined” doesn’t equal peak performance or health.
One can actually have a fairly good rectus abdominis yet not have a prominent six-pack—that’s fine. It’s often in their eagerness to get the six-pack that people get themselves into trouble and pain.
But isn’t that the point of a six-pack—the look of it?
That’s somewhat of a misconception. Some people work on it by way of rehabilitation to counter back pain; others acquire it as a by-product of enhanced abdominal strength, required for improved performance in their chosen sport (such as running).
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What are the most commonly recommended ways of getting a six-pack?
In terms of nutrition, extreme fat burner pills and “health foods”; by way of exercise, sit-ups (straight leg, bent knee or pressed heel variants), leg raises, crunches or working on ab machines (ab belts, ab rockers and ab loungers). However, lots of exercises prescribed to sufferers of back pain exceed the tolerance of their compromised tissues. Sit-ups and leg raises both increase load on the spine, creating conditions that greatly elevate the risk of injury to the spine.
Sit-ups (both straight-leg and bent-knee) and leg raises should not be performed at all by most people. Far better ways exist to challenge the abdominal muscle while imposing a lower load on the spine.
Then who needs to do sit-ups?
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Those training for health alone never need to perform a sit-up. Only those training for performance (elite sportsmen) should attempt it judiciously.
But my trainer told me…!
I have had several gym trainers and instructors come to me with severe lower back pain, often from a herniated disc caused by incorrect exercises, namely sit-ups or leg raises! Cause for concern, as these same people are supposed to protect others from injury.
Everyone does sit-ups, though. How bad can it be?
A strained back will be the least of your problems! You can get a slipped disc over a period of time.
Then what’s the right way to get a six-pack?
The rectus abdominis is structured in such a way that it can be trained by a single exercise for nearly everyone, in a very safe manner (this doesn’t hold true for other abdominal muscles). A curl-up, done correctly, activates all portions of the rectus abdominis. However, be careful: Done with poor technique or with a twisting motion, this too increases lumbar (lower back) compression.
So how do I do a curl-up correctly?
• Start by lying on your back with hands supporting the lower back. Do not flatten the lower back. If you have back pain, adjust hands to minimize it. Bend one leg at the knee (90 degrees); the other should stay relaxed.
• Don’t strain your neck. When you curl up, the movement is in the upper back only. Keep head and neck a rigid block. Have your chin tucked in, tongue against the roof of the mouth, behind the front teeth and pushed forward (this helps relax the neck muscles).
• The idea is to activate the “six-pack” and other abdominal muscles (obliques), not produce spine movement. Your lower back should stay down.
• Don’t try to hold the “curl” forever! Start with 5 seconds, increasing gradually—by 2 seconds every day.
(To watch how a curl-up is done, see SURF, far left)
The author is a practitioner of musculoskeletal medicine and sports and exercise medicine. He is also CEO and medical director of Back 2 Fitness.