Winter is over, the temperatures are rising, summer is going to be here soon. That means 2 things: shedding layers of winter clothes and becoming much more active. Did your Netflix addiction get the better of you for the last 4-6 months? It’s okay, you’ve still got time to get your body ready.
Since we’re all short on time these days you’re going to want to focus on the best bang for your buck exercises, exercises that focus on using a multiple muscle groups and can help you reach both aesthetic and performance goals which is why planks are a great choice.
Planks are a great total body exercise that is efficient, effective, can be done anywhere, and progressed or regressed to fit any fitness level. Whether you’re looking to tighten up the midsection and stand a bit straighter to look great at the beach or improve your athleticism for summer sports, planks are a perfect exercise.
Planks are More Than an “Ab” Exercise:
Most people think of planks as an ab exercise, and while it’s true they are a great exercise for the abs, it’s selling them short.
Most trainers and physical therapists consider the “core” to be the area from your shoulders to your hips and every muscle in between. Doing planks works just about all of these muscles simultaneously. Muscles like the “6 pack abs” (rectus abdominus) deeper abs (transverse abdominus), obliques, spinal errectors, lats, rhomboids, traps, and glutes. Simply rising into a pushup plank will also incorporate the chest and triceps. Planks, when performed correctly, are all about creating tension through the whole body, activating all of the muscles of the “core”.
Compare that to a crunch or situp, where the abs and hip flexors are the only muscles really exerting and it’s easy to see how planks are so much more than just an “ab” exercise.
Planks Work Your “Core” the Right Way:
Research from Dr. Stuart McGills’ lab has shown that the core is constructed to create a corset around the lumbar spine. This corset is built to keep the spine rigid during rotational and compressive forces. For most people, the best core training is that which limits or resists motion of the lower back (lumbar spine).
Planks do just this. More traditional ab exercises like situps and crunches flex the spine, and while that may be good for building a 6 pack, it’s probably not the best choice for your lumbar vertebrae and continued back health.
Planks Help Correct Your Crappy Posture:Many people have what is referred to as desk jockey posture from sitting all day in front of a steering wheel, computer or TV. This posture leads to a rounded upper back, forward shoulders and posterior pelvic tilt. Basically, the length-tension relationships of the muscles have changed from being hunched over all day. Some muscles become overstretched, some shorten, others become overactive and others under-active. This tends to lead to what’s called “hanging off of the hard structures”. Instead of using the muscles to provide stability for a neutral spine, we slide into positions that allow us to use the bones for stability.
Planks are (usually) all about creating a neutral position. It stands to reason, that the muscles which are worked in a plank are also the ones that have an effect on your neutral posture. Muscles like the glutes, spinal errectors (low back), obliques and scapular stabilizers (upper / mid back muscles) help to pull you back into a more neutral position. While simply doing a few planks once or twice a week probably wont fix your posture completely, they’ll help activate and build endurance in the weak, under-active muscles. This will help improve your posture much more than traditional flexion-based “core” exercises like crunches.
You Might Look a Bit Thinner – or Correcting Posture Part 2:
Many women (and some guys) have too much of an arch in the lower back and as a result use the vertebrae of the lower back to create stability. In other words they “hang off the lower back”. Doing this can lead to an excessive lumbar mobility and anterior pelvic tilt. This can give the lower stomach the appearance of being pushed out, or the dreaded lower belly “pooch”.
Planks can help to correct this posture also. Specifically by strengthening the glutes, rectus abdominus and obliques.Remember, planks are a movement that reinforces a neutral hip and spine position, so almost any deviation from a neutral posture can be helped with planks.
Baby Got Back:
We’re in the golden age of glutes. Let’s face it, butts are everywhere. While a nice core never goes out of style, glutes are the “it” muscle right now, in a big way… and for good reason. Not only does a nice set of glutes look great in a bikini or swim shorts, they are arguably the most important muscles in the body from a movement and performance perspective.
While planks are not thought of as a glute exercise, a good plank isn’t about time, it’s about tension. To stay in the correct technique you must squeeze your glutes and keep them contracted hard the whole time. For some of the more challenging plank variations, you’re not only using the glutes to stabilize the hips, they’re also creating motion which will increase the challenge overall.
Planks are Great for Treating and Preventing Low Back Pain:
Nobody wants to get up and head out to catch some waves at 6am on a Saturday and paddle back in after one ride, or be in the clubhouse after 9 holes, all because their lower back is killing them. Back pain affects 31 million Americans at any given time according to the American Chiropractic Association. Don’t be a statistic. Low back pain sufferers have some common traits including tightness in the thoracic spine and hips, weak glutes and the tendency to use the low back to create movement.
Remember, planks are about tightness, creating a stable corset around the spine. Training this corset by planking not only helps to strengthen the muscles but also teaches your body what it feels like to be in a tight, braced, position.
Dr. Stuart McGill
I have been working with back pained people and high performance athletes for over 30 years. If I were asked to choose the single most influential variable that links pain and performance enhancement, it would be an underperforming core. Why is this? What is the core?
Core stiffness is essential for injury prevention. Core stiffness is essential for performance enhancement. Core stiffness is not optimized in body building exercises. Core stiffness requires dedicated training.
A discussion of the core requires a 3‐dimensional perspective. The spine is a stack of vertebrae that is asked to bear loads, yet it is flexible. A design engineer will tell you that you can’t design a structure to be good at both. A steel beam that is straight and stood on its end is stiff, and can bear loads that try to compress, shear and twist it. So the beam can bear load but it can’t move. A flexible rod that allows movement will bend and buckle under load, but absorbs shock. Our spines do it all ‐ they bend and allow the lungs to fill with air, and even allow us to dance. The spine is this beautiful structure that is flexible and allows flowing movement, but requires a 3‐dimensional guy wire system to stiffen and stabilize it when it is require to bear loads. Analysis of the muscular system, together with its associated fascia sheets reveals a clever guy wire system that creates balanced stiffness eliminating the possibility of buckling and injury. The concern is that modern living does not “tune” and train this guy wire system. In many people it lapses into complacency.
The greater the load that is placed down the spine, the greater the need for the musculature to stiffen the spine. How can this be? When muscles contract they do two things: they create force and they create stiffness. Stiffness is always stabilizing to a joint. Thus stiffness prepares the joint to bear load without buckling. Failure to appropriately stiffen is the biggest cause of joint injury, although not the only cause.
On the performance side, “Core Stiffness” is mandatory. It is absolutely essential to carry heavy loads, run fast and change direction quickly. It determines the rate of speed for movement of the arms and legs. There are those people who state they do not need dedicated core training because of they lift and squat. Yet when I assess their strength and speed abilities, often I find they are unable to use translate their strength to on‐field performance. Pointing out their weak links brings them to the realization: Training the core is non‐negotiable.
How does core stiffness enhance limb speed and strength? Consider the pectoralis major muscle – it attaches the rib cage at its proximal end, crosses the shoulder joint, and attaches at its distal end to the humerus of the upper arm. When muscles contract they try to shorten. Consider the specific action here – the arm flexes around the shoulder joint moving the arm from muscle shortening at the distal end. But the same shortening also bends the rib cage towards the arm at the proximal end of the muscle. Thus simply using the pec muscle would not result in a fast nor forceful punch. Now stiffen the proximal end of pec muscle attachment – meaning stiffen the core and ribcage so it can’t move. Now, 100% of pec muscle shortening is directed to action at its distal end producing fast and forceful motion in the arm. In the same way a stiffened core locks down the proximal ends of the hip muscles producing fast leg motion. A loss of core stiffness causes the torso to bend when sprinting, and a loss of speed ‐ some force was robbed that should have been expressed in leg velocity. Thus, a universal law of human movement is illustrated – proximal stiffness enhances distal mobility and athleticism.
Consider a 340 pound NFL lineman, who is strength trained in the weight room on Olympic lifts and power cleans. His coaches believe he is well trained. Yet the athlete has back pain that limits training. Measuring his cutting speed – the ability to take 5 fast strides forward, plant a foot and cut to the right reveals his great weakness and strength imbalance. The pelvis drops on the swing leg side and the spine bends laterally. He reports a twinge of pain. All of his strength training has been performed with two legs on the ground. All of the pulls, lifts and presses never trained the core in 3‐dimensions. The weak link is limiting his performance and causing stress and pain. Addressing this with loaded carrying exercises produced more lateral spine stiffness in his core. His pelvis and spine produce appropriate proximal stiffness (proximal to the hip joint) so that more velocity of all of the muscles that cross the hip joint go to the distal side of the joint resulting in faster leg speed. Further, the spine does not bend, the stress concentration at the joint is eliminated and the pain is gone. This example demonstrates that the hip muscles were limited by a weaker lateral core. Specifically, the gluteal muscles on the stance leg were confined by the lateral core muscles on the swing leg side of the body – in this case the lateral obliques and quadratus lumborum. Good training always addresses the elements that assist and potentiate one another throughout the body linkage. The core is home base.
Proximal stiffness, or stiffening the core between the hip and shoulder joints produces higher limb speed and force. Strike force in MMA or baseball or golf, is governed by this universal principle. Limb speed for throwing, running, and directional change is a fundamental athleticism. While proximal stiffness (the core) governs all of these athletic objectives it also reduces back pain and injury by reducing the spine bending when loads are imposed. The spine loses its load bearing strength as it is bent more away from its neutral posture.
So now we can answer the question – what is the core. Proximal stiffness occurs between the ball and socket joints – ie. the hips and shoulders. It involves all of the muscles in the torso. They function primarily to stop motion. They should be trained this way. The core also involves the muscles that cross the ball and socket joints that have distal connections – psoas, the gluteals, latissimus, pecs, etc.
There are many ways to train these in progressions to enhance performance and injury resilience. I have described these in my book, “Ultimate back fitness and performance” (www.backfitpro.com). Every person will have different requirements – hence each person will need guidance in how to create the best program for themselves.
Still not convinced that dedicated core training is mandatory? The most essential of human movements is the ability to walk. Children with paralysis of quadratus lumborum can hardly walk. The pelvis, if not stiffened to the lumbar spine with quadratus contraction, simply bends laterally so that the torso collapses with the stance phase of the walking cycle. Quadratus is an essential core muscle forming the lateral core. Some of us have enough athleticism such that extra training of the Quadratus is not necessary. But the NFL lineman needs to train it to change direction quickly on the gridiron – ensuring that the lateral core is up to the job of creating a stiff base so the hip muscles can explode producing maximum cutting speed.
A final thought addresses the universality of core training. The exercise progressions that our scientific work has justified over the years to reduce the risk of back injury, and to enhance performance, are very similar to the progressions shown to reduce the risk of groin injury, sportsman’s hernia and knee injury, particularly to the ACL. All of us working in these areas converged on the same conclusion. No one can afford to neglect this building block of function. Core training to enhance stiffness is the foundation, the underpinning of one of the most fundamental laws of human motion.
Men's Health BY CRAIG BALLANTYNE FEB 27, 2007
Yes, it's true. These two standard ab exercises can actually be murder on your low back.
Why? Because they involve spinal flexion (rounding your lower back to allow you to bend forward at the waist). But according to research, that's the exact mechanism that causes a herniated disc in your lower back. After all, most people "throw their back out" bending over to pick something off the ground.
So it makes sense to limit the amount of traditional sit-ups and crunches in your program. Plus, you can't spot reduce the fat from one area, so you are better off spending that exercise time on a better total body exercise or intervals. If you want to flatten your abs, you need to lose body fat.
So to improve your abs, use the following techniques:
1) Take half the time you were spending on abs, and do intervals with that time instead.
2) Spend most of your ab training time doing total body ab stabilization/endurance exercises such Planks, Side Planks, Mountain Climbers, and Stability Ball Jackknives. This removes exercises that irritate your back and build abdominal endurance which is shown to be associated with less low back pain.
3) Keep your abs braced in all exercises so that you work your abs in every movement that you do. Even in bodyweight exercises
Train hard but safe,
Craig Ballantyne, CSCS, MS
Whether a popular opinion or not, I rarely support the idea of doing crunches for ab training. And this is coming from a recovered crunches-junkie. Growing up I did my fair share of crunches. After all, all my dance teachers did them as part of our daily warm-up. In fact, I had one teacher (in college nonetheless), try to convince us to do 5,000 crunches a day like she did. For realz, peeps.
So why am I so anti-crunches? For a lot of reasons. And just in case you need some reasons why you should trust me… here’s the bullet-list of my credentials:
10 reasons why you should NOT do crunches
1. They can be dangerous.Sure, if you do them right crunches can be harmless. But having taught dance and conditioning for over a decade, most people are not doing them right. Doing crunches in both a safe and effective manner require a good deal of body awareness and anatomical knowledge. And even then, those types of people are usually the ones throwing legs in the air or adding twists while doing it. It’s far too easy to pull a muscle, slip some disc in your spine, or create more subtle (but unpleasant) problems that won’t show up immediately.
2. They wreak havoc on your spine.Many instructors will tell you to “flatten” your spine to the floor when doing crunches. This makes sense to some degree because it protects you from major injury. But unfortunately, it also trains your body to stay in that flattened position. The spine has curves for a reason. Any real core training will take into account those curves and find ways to support the spine without having to compromise the natural integrity of its form.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who don’t flatten their spine, but also don’t understand the transverse abdominus and its role in maintaining a neutral spine. These people will often release the spine too much (over extending the curve of the lower back) which results in major issues (and points right back to reason #1).
3. They can create poor posture.Crunches reinforce bad habits that result in poor posture. I’ve worked with numerous students and clients who were unconsciously “tucking their butt under” and “holding in their abs” as a result of too much bad ab training. Again, this reinforces conditioning that disrupts the natural curves of the spinal. The end result to all this “ab strengthened” a really STRONG bad posture.
And since the whole body is connected: Tucked bottoms result in flattened spinal curves which usually bring the shoulders slumped downward, the head forward, and starts to slowly work on that “old lady hump” in the back that nobody wants. I can always tell when someone does too many crunches almost immediately by their posture alone.
4. They over-focus on surface muscles instead of deep core muscles.Crunches really zone your surface ab muscles. While it’s true that these are your “six pack” muscles, they are not the most important muscles for true core strength. I witnessed numerous dancers who had very “strong abs” and poor core support. If all you care about is how your stomach looks, by all means, keep crunching away. But if you want real strength that supports the body in motion (and is critical for living a pain-free life), go deeper.
(By the way, once I finally let go of my crunches addiction, I finally started seeing definition in my stomach.)
5. They often create tension and restriction in the hips.Most individuals tuck their butt under as they do crunches. This again overworks surface muscles, disengages more core muscles, tightens hip flexors, and can create tension in the hips. The habit of tucking also produces unwanted results in the hip joint that can also manifest as lower back pain.
6. They can create tension and pain in the neck.Ever watch someone do a lot of crunches? More often than not you’ve seen the strained look in their face and the taught tension in their neck. Another indication that crunches forget that the connection of the entire spine, doing more harm than good.
7. They do not consider the whole body.As already mentioned, crunches neglect deeper core muscles, critical aspects of the spine, as well as the role our core plays in the whole body. True core training acknowledges that the whole body is connected. Working for a six pack at the neglect of everything else is dangerous and a waste of time.
8. They are boring.‘Nuff said. Exercise should be engaging. If not we don’t stay with it. Working in a way that keeps our mind active is important. Enjoying what we do makes the difference between fit-for-life and fit-until-I-run-out-of-steam-and-possibly-at-the-cost-of-my-thyroid-and-adrenals.
9. For anyone who has diastic recti, they will only make things worse.This is a very common condition for women who have given birth. It’s is a disorder defined as a separation of the rectus abdominis muscle into right and left halves. It often goes “undiagnosed” and most women who have it think they just need to lose weight or tone their tummy as the result is a protruding pooch. But doing crunches will only aggravate the situation more. For real results, check out this book.
10. There are so many other options for better core training.Even if crunches weren’t dangerous, restrictive, and ineffective there are so many other options that provide true core training. What sort of things? I’m glad you asked. Here is the follow up post on my favorite core training exercises.
Ready to take fitness, alignment, and exercise to the next level? Listen up.As a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist I know how vital the right kind of movement is to our health–to our very DNA. My ebook, Live Pain Free, provides an overview of the same movement approach I used while working with individual clients. The 60 exercises you’ll find in my book will help you improve your mobility, reduce chronic pain, and bring joy back to your movement.
Trust me, you can’t afford to live with pain, and this guide will help you rediscover your body’s natural patterns in as little as ten to fifteen minutes a day.
So… do you do crunches? Are you willing to consider some better alternatives?
Childs JD1, Teyhen DS, Benedict TM, Morris JB, Fortenberry AD, McQueen RM, Preston JB, Wright AC, Dugan JL, George SZ.Author information
PURPOSE: Core stabilization exercises target abdominal and trunk muscles without the excessive loading that occurs during sit-ups. However, core stabilization exercise programs (CSEP) have not been widely adopted in the US Army partially because of the perceived deleterious impact they would have on performance during the Army Physical Fitness Test. The purpose was to determine whether performing CSEP in lieu of sit-ups during unit physical training would have detrimental effects on sit-up performance and passing rates on the fitness test.
METHODS: Soldiers (N = 2616) between 18 and 35 yr of age were randomized to receive a traditional exercise program (TEP) with sit-ups or CSEP. Subjects with a previous history of low back pain or other injury precluding participation in training were excluded. The training programs were completed four times per week for 12 wk. Performance was assessed at baseline and after 12 wk.
RESULTS: Both groups demonstrated significant improvements in sit-up performance and overall fitness scores over time (P < 0.001). There were no significant between-group differences in overall fitness scores (P = 0.142) or sit-up performance (P = 0.543). However, CSEP resulted in a significant improvement in sit-up passing rates by 5.6% compared with 3.9% for the TEP group (P = 0.004).
CONCLUSIONS: CSEP did not have a detrimental impact on sit-up performance or overall fitness scores or pass rates. There was a small but significantly greater increase in sit-up pass rate in the CSEP (5.6%) versus the TEP group (3.9%). Incorporating CSEP into Army physical training does not increase the risk of suboptimal performance on the Army's fitness test and may offer a small benefit for improving sit-up performance.
Professor Stuart McGill, PhD University of Waterloo, Canada, and Backfitpro Inc.
There is confusion between the terms flexion “movement” and flexion “moment”. Flexion movement defines the act of bending the spine forward, flexing the spine. This is the kinematic term. Flexion moment refers to the act of creating flexion moment or torque. This is the kinetic term. This is independent of whether movement occurs. Standing, and pushing a load requires the spine to stiffen with anterior muscle activation, hence flexion moment occurs requiring abdominal muscle strength but not movement.
I was shown a quote recently from a trainer who stated, “I followed McGill and avoided flexion and got so weak I could hardly do a situp”. Apart from a terrible misunderstanding and misquote of what we do, this person did not understand the difference between flexion movement and moment. It would appear he avoided moment training. He caused his outcome.
Flexion movement of the spine strains the layers of collagen in the spinal discs. When loads on the spine are small, movement is healthy. We often recommend the cat‐camel motion exercise taking the spine through an unloaded range of motion. Thus, there is a time and place for flexion motion. When the spine loads are high in magnitude with repeated flexion motion, the collagen fibres delaminate in a cumulative fashion. Slowly the nucleus of the disc will work through the delaminations and create a disc bulge. The greater the load, and the greater the repetitions, the faster this will occur (Tampier et al, 2007, Veres et al, 2009). Several other events occur depending on the amount of stretch on the spine ligaments at the end‐range of flexion. For example, cytokines linked to acute and chronic inflammation accumulate with repeated full‐flexion motion exposure (D’Ambrosia et al, 2010).
I have been misquoted along the lines, “McGill states that XXXXX bending cycles cause disc herniation”. There is not a single number – it is a variable. Many variables influence the rate of the herniation process. For example, the shape of the persons disc influences whether the herniation will be focal (Yates and McGill, 2010) and responsive to McKenzie types of rehabilitative exercises, or not (Scannell and McGill, 2009). These responsive discs are predominantly limacon‐shaped. In contrast, ovoid discs survive twisting cycles better. The thickness of the spine also influences the rate of gradual herniation – thicker spines have higher bending stress and herniate faster with flexion cycles. For example, a NFL linebacker must have larger diameter discs to survive the compressive loading, but these same discs will not do well performing a 1000 situps. In contrast, it has been pointed out to me that there is a fellow in Brazil on Youtube who does 1000 situps everyday, implying by logical extension that I must be in error. But you will notice that he has a very slender spine so the bending stresses are small.
But his thin spine would not survive the loading of a single NFL game. These elements of biological variability preclude the recommending of an exercise approach simply because it was tolerable by another individual. Further, time of day influences the rate of herniation. After rising from bed, the disc nucleus’ are fully hydrated and have much higher stresses during flexion. It is more risky to train repeated bending earlier in the morning. Occupational studies have shown avoiding flexion motion in the morning reduced disabling workplace backpain (eg Snook et al, 1998). Different spines mean different injury mechanisms, different resiliencies to motion, and different training approaches. Choose your parents (disc geometry and thus stress patterns came from your parents), then choose your best way to train!
I have been shown quotes, “McGill uses pig spines” to dismiss our work. These quotes must come from kids who live in their basements. They may have seen a single study but do not know our body of work. We have published hundreds of experiments in medical publications over 30 years with about 10% of them using animals. These are essential studies where we can test 40 identical spines to establish the interaction and influence of some of the variables introduced above. Of course these mechanisms are calibrated back to human mechanisms (eg Yingling et al, 1999).
Why is “flexion exercise” such a passionate issue? Core training, training the abdominals, core stiffness and stability are all essential components for pain control, performance enhancement, and injury resilience. But the specific issue here is whether the spine needs flexion movement or flexion moment training. The following section explains the foundation for athletic performance that has 4 components: 1) Proximal stiffness (meaning the lumbar spine and core) enhances distal athleticism and limb speed; 2) A muscular guy wire system is essential for the flexible spine to successfully bear load; 3) Muscular co‐activation creates stiffness to eliminate micro‐movements in the joints that lead to pain and tissue degeneration; 4) Abdominal armor is necessary for some occupational, combative and impact athletes. Logically, we must now discuss the priority for flexion movement or moment.
First, how does core stiffness enhance limb speed and strength? Consider an example with the shoulder and the pectoralis major muscle – it attaches the rib cage at its proximal end, crosses the shoulder joint, and attaches to the humerus of the upper arm at its distal end. When muscles contract they try to shorten. Consider the specific action here – pectoralis muscle contraction flexes the arm around the shoulder joint moving the arm from muscle shortening at the distal end. But the same shortening also bends the rib cage towards the arm at the proximal end of the muscle – in other words bending the core. Thus simply using the pec muscle would not result in a fast nor forceful push or punch. Now stiffen the proximal end of the pectoralis muscle attachment – meaning stiffen the core and ribcage so it can’t move. Now 100% of pectoralis muscle shortening is directed to action at its distal end producing fast and forceful motion in the arm. In the same way a stiffened core locks down the proximal ends of the hip muscles producing faster leg motion. A loss of core stiffness causes the torso to bend when sprinting, and a loss of speed ‐ some force was robbed that should have been expressed in leg velocity. Thus, a universal law of human movement is illustrated – “proximal stiffness enhances distal mobility and athleticism”. This requires flexion moment training (core stiffness), not movement.
Second, the spine is a stack of vertebrae that is called upon to bear loads, yet it is flexible. An engineer cannot design a structure to be good at both. A steel beam that is straight and stood on its end is stiff, and can bear loads that try to compress, shear and twist it. So the beam can bear load but it can’t move. A flexible rod that allows movement will bend and buckle under load, but absorbs shock. Our spines do it all ‐ they bend and allow the lungs to fill with air, and even allow us to dance. The spine is this beautiful structure that is flexible and allows flowing movement, but requires a 3‐dimensional guy wire system to stiffen and stabilize it when it is required to bear loads. Analysis of the muscular system, together with its associated fascia sheets reveals a clever guy wire system that creates balanced stiffness eliminating the possibility of buckling and injury. The concern is that modern living does not “tune” and train this guy wire system. In many people it lapses into complacency. This requires flexion moment training (core stiffness), not movement.
Third, back injury causes joint laxity. For example, injury to the disc causes it to loose height allowing aberrant joint micro‐movements. The micro‐movements irritate sensory nerves resulting in back pain and radiating pains. Spine stiffness from co‐contracted torso muscles minimise the micro‐movements and control pain. Note this co‐contraction is “tuned” to create sufficient stiffness. This requires flexion moment training (core stiffness), not movement.
Fourth, athletes who require abdominal armor to survive kicks and blows need abdominal training. Top combative athletes seek my consulting expertise for back pain. Typically, they have trained high repetition situps to build armor, but eventually develop back pain ending their careers. I change the flexion movement approach to flexion moment (core stiffness) by having them perform exercises such as “stir the pot”. No motion occurs in their spine. Their strike speed is enhanced (Lee and McGill, in press), and their training tolerance has been restored. Their careers have been salvaged.
Finally there is practical/applied evidence from group trials. For example, military groups have made speed situps a mandatory component for annual fitness tests. Soldiers train the test. Recognizing the US military unacceptable low back injury statistics, Childs et al, (2009) tested the substituting of situp training with planks and “stir the pot” consistent with flexion moment training (core stiffness, not movement). The group of soldiers with moment training performed better in the situp tests even though they did not train them. They had healthier backs.
The "big 3" exercises (McGill, 1998 and McGill, 2014) have been proven to enhance stiffness that lasts after the session has finished (Lee and McGill, in press), tuning the guy wire support of loads. For those with back injury, and unstable spine joints, enhancing stiffness with flexion moment training together with flexion movement avoidance are essential to control and eliminate the micro‐movements that cause pain (Ikeda and McGill, 2012). These exercises should be performed every day. They are the foundation from which larger exercise progressions can be designed to optimally reduce pain, and enhance athleticism. These progressions will include the objectives of endurance, strength and power while building resilience, reaction time and whatever else they need to be their best.
There are those who claim that their sport is flexion movement‐based and they must train flexion movement – such as jiu‐jitsu athletes. But again I have consulted with several top jiu‐jitsu players. They were not able to train because of the back pain they induced over time training flexion movement cycles. With no pain‐free capacity to train they were finished. We changed the training from a flexion movement to a flexion moment approach, thus regaining pain‐free spine flexion ability but saving the spine flexion for the ring and octagon. Their capacity to train was restored. Again some careers were salvaged and indeed flourished.
How are these thoughts put into practice? It depends! The answer depends on history – does the person have episodic back pain, or chronic pain or perhaps has never had pain. If they are a grand master of powerlifting and have never had back pain I suggest keeping their style. But if they have a pain history, the answer is different. First, if the spine is under load, it is best to not move it – keep it stiff. This principle is not contestable. The second best is, if the spine must flex such as a strongman event competitor lifting an atlas stone, the spine is stiffened in an isometrically flexed spine posture. The stone is hooked by the thighs, arms and pectoralis muscles as the spine curls over the stone. The spine does not move as the motion is focussed about the hip joints until the final “hoik”. So the spine is flexed while under load but it does not move. The worst technique would be to move the spine into flexion, over and over, so the combination of load with motion would slowly and cumulatively delaminate the disc collagen. Here the spine is fatigued before the muscles. Training volume is compromised. It would be more effective to build training volume by reducing the spine movement, truly train the muscles to perform, and spare the spine. My consulting with this approach has taken many injured athletes back to function sufficient to compete at the Olympics, and in the UFC, NBA, NHL, NFL etc. and win.
Other considerations besides pain history would include findings from an assessment. I would assess the geometry of their hip joints, their function, and look for opportunity to enhance the mechanics through the linkage to the pelvis and spine. Then I would perform provocative testing to identify the mechanism of pain generation. If the pain is resulting from flexion motion, or flexion motion when combined with a specific compressive load, there is no option regarding the training strategy that will allow the continuation of pain‐free training – flexion must be avoided. Then I examine lifestyle and the rest of the training program. For example if the individual sits at a computer as an occupation, most likely the training program will need to address the consequences of long duration spine flexion first. Then, together we identify the training goals of the individual, assess their current status, and decide on the best exercise tools to take them to the goal.
The reader appreciates that the issue of “spine flexion”, from the perspective of injury mechanics and exercise prescription, is complex. The most justifiable approach will not be guided by a single study, not one on pigs, humans, or within institutions like the military. But together, all of these studies are important. Interpretation of this collection of work requires much time and expertise. While I have injected a few references, they are sparse so as to not burden the reader. I have synthesized these many papers to guide training in my textbook “Ultimate back fitness and performance” (fifth edition 2014, www.backfitpro.com). Many of the original scientific papers are listed in my CV on the university website (https://uwaterloo.ca/kinesiology/people‐profiles/stuart‐mcgill).
Callaghan, J.P., and McGill, S.M. (2001) Intervertebral disc herniation: Studies on a porcine model exposed to highly repetitive flexion/extension motion with compressive force. Clin. Biom. 16(1): 28‐37.
Childs, J.D., George, S.Z., Wright, A., Dugan, J.L., Benedict, T., Bush, J., Fortenberry, A., Preston, J., McQueen, R., Teyhen, D.S., (2009) The effects of traditional sit‐up training versus core stabilization exercises on sit‐up performance in US Army Soldiers: A cluster randomized trial, J. Orthop. Sports Phys. Ther., 39(1): A18.
D'Ambrosia, P., King, K., Davidson, B., Zhou, B., Lu, Y., Solomonow, M., (2010) Pro‐inflammatory cytokines expression increases following low and high magnitude cyclic loading of lumbar ligaments, Eur. Spine J., doi 10.1007/s00586‐010‐1371‐4.
Ikeda, D., McGill, S.M. (2012) Can altering motions, postures and loads provide immediate low back pain relief: A study of four cases investigating spine load, posture and stability. SPINE. 37 (23): E1469‐E1475
Lee, B., and McGill, S.M., (in press) The “Big 3” stabilization exercises enhance spine stiffness.
McGill, S.M. Invited Paper. (1998) Low back exercises: Evidence for improving exercise regimens. Physical Therapy 78(7): 754‐765.
McGill, S.M. Ultimate back fitness and performance, Backfitpro Inc., Waterloo, Canada, ISBN 0‐9736018‐0‐4 (www.backfitpro.com). Fifth edition 2014.
Scannell, J.P., McGill, S.M. (2009) Disc prolapse: Evidence of reversal with repeated extension. SPINE, 34(4): 344‐350.
Snook, S.H., Webster, B.S., McGarry, R.W., Fogleman, D.T., McCann, K.B., (1998) The reduction of chronic non‐specific low back pain through the control of early morning lumbar flexion: A randomized controlled trial, SPINE, 23(23):2601‐2607.
Tampier, C., Drake, J., Callaghan, J., McGill, S.M. (2007) Progressive disc herniation: An investigation of the mechanism using radiologic, histochemical and microscopic dissection techniques. SPINE, 32(25): 2869‐2874.
Veres, S.P., Robertson, P.A., Broom, N.D., (2009) The morphology of acute disc herniation: A clinically relevant model defining the role of flexion. SPINE: 34(21):2288‐2296.
Yates, J.P., Giangregorio, L. and McGill, S.M. (2010) The influence of intervertebral disc shape on the pathway of posterior/posterior lateral partial herniation. SPINE. 35 (7):734‐739.
Yingling, V.R., Callaghan, J.P., and McGill, S.M. (1999) The porcine cervical spine as a reasonable model of the human lumbar spine: An anatomical, geometrical and functional comparison. J. Spinal Disorders 12(5): 415‐423.
Stuart McGill, Professor of Spine Biomechanics
At a gymnastics or martial arts meet, or at a weightlifting competition, listen to the coaches advice to the athlete – Stay tight! This means to maintain stiffness. Being stiff ensures that there will be minimal energy losses as forces are transmitted through the linkages. Optimal performance requires stability, and stability results from stiffness. Stiffness in the body results from muscular co-contraction. Be stiff, and be compliant. Knowing the difference and when to be one or the other is a major way to improving performance.
When a muscle contracts, it creates both force and stiffness. Force creates joint torque to support postures and create movement – but sometimes the force will enhance joint stability and sometimes it will compromise stability. It depends on the magnitude of the force and its relative magnitude relative to all other muscle forces acting at the joint. In contrast, muscle stiffness is always stabilizing. A stiff muscle buttresses against perturbations from all directions. Stiffness at one joint buttresses the development of explosive power at another. Stiffness is also enhanced by positional techniques of the body segment linkage where one segment can be stiffened against another – for example, stiffening an arm against the torso.
When all muscles at a joint stiffen together a “super stiffness” phenomenon generally occurs. The total stiffness at a joint suddenly becomes more than the sum of individual muscle stiffnesses. Consider the abdominal wall in creating “core stability”. Rectus abdominis, external and internal oblique and transverse abdominis appear to bind together when all are active to create a super stiffness higher than the sum of each individual muscle. For those activities that demand high core or torso stability, all muscles must be activated – never isolate one. Furthermore, as will be shown later, high performance in athletics requires rapid muscle activation onset and force development, together with equally rapid reduction of muscle force. Super stiffness needs only to occur briefly in such cases, but if it needs to be brief, the motor control system must be highly tuned to ensure optimal super stiffness.
Consider a lifter in competition. The core must be extraordinarily stiff to minimize energy losses and ensure that the torso will not buckle. Super stiffness is required with all muscles contributing. Some individuals have recently begun to advocate “drawing in” the abdominal wall during the exertion – this is ill founded. Not only does super stiffness and stability demand all muscles to be stiffened but they must be maintained at a distance from the spine. Sailboats with masts needing stability achieve this with rigid spreaders of the guy wires or rigging. Vasily Alexeyev achieved the spreading of the muscles to enhance stability with girth. In contrast to the manoeuver of abdominal hollowing (not recommended), try performing the abdominal brace. Here is how to begin teaching the
brace. Begin by standing in a relaxed upright standing posture with sufficient erectness so that the torso extensors are inactive – palpate them to be sure. Then contract the entire abdominal wall and feel the back musculature contract. This is the brace – all muscles around the torso stiffen to ensure stability. Now the focus is on matching the intensity of the contraction to the stability demand of the task. Interestingly enough, stiffness and stability is an asymptotic function – in other words a lot of stability is achieved in the first 25% of the maximum contraction level. Thus 100% muscle contraction levels are rarely needed – the trick is to activate many muscles to achieve symmetric stiffness around a joint.
As a professor and consultant I see too many people who succumb to bad backs during the effort to increase fitness. No wonder. Building true strength and function is elusive for many following the traditional American approach dominated by body building concepts. Of all the variables required for optimal performance, building muscle strength is the easiest component to enhance with training. Far more difficult is the enhancement of the foundation components of healthy motion and motor patterns, joint stability and endurance. And only then with this foundation can serious strength with speed and power be developed.
The Ultimate Approach
Our work on back fitness and injury mechanisms over the years has led to the development of a 5 stage program documented in my textbook “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance”. Briefly, building the ultimate back requires core stability and follows a 5 stage process that ensures a foundation for eventual strength, speed and power training. The stages are:
Stage 1. Groove motion patterns, motor patterns with corrective exercise
- basic movement patterns through to complex activity specific patterns
- basic balance challenges through to complex balance specific environments
Stage 2. Build whole body and joint stability (with super stiffness)
- build stiffness and stability while sparing the joints
- ensure sufficient stability commensurate for the demands of the task
Stage 3. Increase endurance
- basic endurance training to build the foundation for eventual strength - activity specific endurance (duration, intensity)
Stage 4. Build strength
- spare the joints while maximizing neuromuscular compartment challenge - speed strength and multi-articular functional strength
- optimal timing and “steering” of strength
Stage 5. Develop power, agility
- develop ultimate performance with the foundation laid in stages 1-4 - blend compliance with stiffness
Overlay for all stages:
The position of performance
The balance environment
Short range stiffness, super stiffness and performance
The abdominals form an interesting illustrative study. They are not designed for great length change. Consider the rectus abdominis that has transverse tendons interrupting the series arrangement of sarcomeres. This is to transmit significant hoop stresses, developed in the abdominal wall, transversely through rectus so that it is not ripped apart. The key is to realize that the rectus muscle is designed to develop short range stiffness. Trying to train the muscle by performing curl ups over a gym ball misses the point of its function. Top boxers, martial artists and weight lifters, know how to train the muscle group for short range stiffness. Plyometric training of the group with medicine ball catches and throws, ballistic short range, and rapid contractions are techniques to optimize the storage and recovery of elastic energy potential. Read “The Naked Warrior” by Pavel, to see the tests and training for super stiffness in sustained contractions – his technique of using a stick looking for “soft areas” when performing a pushup is an excellent example.
Super stiffness is used by the best football hitters, golfers, martial artists and weightlifters. Consider the hit in football where maximum speed of approach requires the combination of sufficient stiffness and compliance. But at the instant of impact a total body stiffness is generated by rapid contraction of all muscles. This is what makes the impact so devastating by some. Breaking the board by the martial artist requires the skill of compliance to build speed with rapid super stiffness just at impact. The axeman splitting wood uses the same technique. The professional golfer who has a relaxed backswing but rapidly obtains super stiffness at ball impact is the one who achieves the long ball. The one who tries to swing too hard too soon actually decreases speed of movement. Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, Vasily Alexeyev, all knew the secret of Super stiffness. Understand the relationship between speed, compliance and stiffness and you will be achieving ultimate performance.
McGill, S.M., Ultimate back fitness and performance, Wabuno publishers, 2004. Available from www.backfitpro.com
About the Author
Stuart McGill is a Professor of Spine Biomechanics and is the Chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He has been the author of over 200 scientific journal papers that address the issues of low back function, injury prevention and rehabilitation, and performance training. Collectively this work has received numerous scientific awards. He sits on the editorial boards of the journals SPINE, Clinical Biomechanics, and Journal of Applied Biomechanics. As a consultant, he has
provided expertise on assessment and reduction of the risk of low back injury to various government agencies, many corporations and legal firms and professional/international athletes and teams from many countries. In addition to seeing patients sent for consult, he teaches clinical courses regularly around the world. His other textbook was entitled “Low Back Disorders: Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation” published by Human Kinetics.