Crunching Your Way to Back Pain

One of the most common reasons somebody would seek chiropractic care is chronic low back pain. A complaint I often hear is, “My low back hurts when I do crunches!”. Some folks view their inability to comfortably perform this abdominal exercise as the ultimate in fitness failure. Well I’ve got good news. You don’t have to do a single crunch or sit up to be considered healthy. Crunches may actually be hurting some of you more than they help. Wipe away those tears of joy and continue reading.

Many spines have a bias. Some spines feel better when they are flexed forward as you would to tie a shoe. Some spines feel better when they are extended as when you are reaching overhead. There are a variety of factors and conditions that influence whether you have one bias or the other. If you have an extension bias, meaning that your spine may not tolerate flexing well then sit ups and abdominal crunches are going to make you miserable and will eventually injure your spine.

Repetitive flexing activities such and bending or crunching will eventually lead to an injury in the low back discs and lead to a herniation. Before you know it you have pain, numbness, or even muscle weakness down your leg. People assume than spinal injuries happen from moving a couch or lifting a box or stepping wrong or something. That isn’t how these things really happen though. It takes a considerable amount of force to rupture a disc. They are rubbery and tough, able to withstand a lot of torque and force. There is no way that one ill-fated twist and lift maneuver can generate the forces necessary to cause this injury. The couch moving or box lifting is that proverbial straw that breaks the camels back. Instead of a single event causing a disc injury it is a result of cumulative, repetitive trauma to the spine.

So when you are crunching your way to six-pack abs you are also crunching your way to 6 weeks or months of recovery from your spinal disc injury if you have an extension bias? How can you tell if flexing is bad for your spine? A great test I use in evaluating my patients is to have them sit on a stool and grip the seat part underneath them. Then they pull with their arms to increase the load on the spine. This can be done in neutral, with the spine flexed or the spine extended. If a person experiences back pain symptoms during any of these test then they can know that this spinal position is not good for them. If flexing your spine is causing pain then your sit ups and crunches will make the problem worse.

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Maybe at this point you are saying, “Wait a minute! I thought that the abdominal muscles were core muscles and strong core muscles protect the back.” That’s actually correct. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) crunches do not develop the type of muscle contraction/coordination that protects the spine. Think about it. What are your abs doing most of the time? They are stabilizing and supporting your body not folding you in half! Most of the situations you would need to bend forward in gravity is doing most of the work anyway because you are upright.

So why have we all been taught since wearing those stupid shorts in middle school gym class that sit ups are good for you? Crunches are good for hypertrophy or muscle growth. So if you want a nice large set of abdominal muscles then crunch away. If your training for better function, injury prevention and spinal health then put away the Ab Roller and start doing core stability exercises instead of Ab muscle workouts.

Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the worlds foremost experts on spine biomechanics has heavily influenced my opinions on this concept. One of my favorite core stability exercises he recommends is called “Stirring the Pot”. You do a plank on an exercise ball by resting your elbows on the ball while the rest of your body is straight like a board. After you learn to balance on the ball this way you start stirring the pot. Put your hands together and make a stirring motion while you support your body in the plank position. Do about 10 circles each direction. Click here for a video example of this exercise. This is a great abdominal exercise that uses your abs in a meaningful way. Best of all you are helping and not hurting your back. (I recommend visiting Dr. McGill’s website BackFitPro.com)

That’s it! If you’re having chronic back pain try eliminating crunches and sit ups. I hereby absolve you of the need to do any crunches or sit ups to feel like a good person. Build functional core strength with stabilization exercises.

What do you do to train for core strength?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Nancy

    Thanks for the info and links. I struggle a lot with core strength/lower back pain, so I am looking forward to learning some new exercises!

  2. Jon

    Would this also apply when performing pelvic tilts and bridges, I am getting pain in lower back and back of legs when I raise up or squeeze my glutes?

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