Check out the magazine section at your local bookstore or supermarket, and you’ll see umpteen magazines touting exercises to flatten your belly. “Six Pack Abdominals” are yours for the taking if you just follow these certain exercises, and almost all of the pictures show a 20-something model doing crunches, either on the floor or on a stability ball. Even yoga classes were teaching the “hold your belly button in” technique when doing exercises and movements. The transverse abdominis (TA) was the important muscle to activate, supposedly to stabilize the spine, before any other movements using the arms or legs could begin. Pilates classes and the gym were espousing the fact that core health was all about the TA. Personal trainers began directing clients to pull in their belly buttons during crunches on the swiss ball or to press their backs into the floor when doing sit-ups, then curl up sequentially, one spinal segment at a time. The problem is, most trainers, teachers, and the general public, think that only the abs are involved in core strengthening. Not so.

Think of the muscles surrounding the hips and the spine as a corset, with the abs providing only one part of the stabilizing process. The hip flexors, butt muscles, inner hip muscles, hamstrings, and low back muscles all provide ‘guy wires’ to keep the spine in place. And, to keep the spine in place, the muscles must be balanced, in order to enable the spine to bear large loads. Concentrating on one set of muscles within the core can destabilize the spine by pulling it out of alignment. One needs equal strength in all of the muscles to have a fair ‘tug of war’ between them, to allow the spine to bear load without injury. If one of the guy wires becomes too strong, disaster waits. You can’t do crunches (abdominal flexion) without doing equal amounts of abdominal extension (arching the back, like the ‘bird dog’ exercise-on all fours lifting opposite arm and leg). The side muscles (abdominal obliques) must also be strengthened (side planks, rotational exercises, perhaps using a light weight or a medicine ball) to create true ‘core’ strength. NO MORE CRUNCHES, PLEASE!

Stay well, John R Blilie, M.S.