In addition to helping your posture, a strong core can play a critical role in keeping you pain-free, specifically in the low back. If you’ve experienced low-back pain, you’ve probably been told that improving your core strength can help alleviate your discomfort, as a weak core is a major cause of back pain. I’ve had multiple clients come to me claiming that they’ve been working on their core strength at the behest of a doctor. With no specific instructions beyond “improve core strength,” you might leave the doctor’s office and immediately begin a program of crunches, twisting crunches, side crunches, and several other movements that involve lying on your back and bringing your torso toward your knees. After weeks or months of following this protocol, chances are high that you’re not only still suffering from low-back pain but may actually be experiencing an increase in symptoms. How can this be? What went wrong?
In order to understand why crunches can actually exacerbate low-back pain instead of offer back pain relief, we must first look at the basic structure and function of the spine. Our spinal column consists of the spinal cord, the spinal nerves, 33 vertebrae (bones), and 24 intervertebral discs that provide padding between each vertebra. The intervertebral discs live only between the vertebrae of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spinal regions; we have 9 additional fused vertebrae in the sacrum and coccyx that aren’t separated by discs.
The integrity of the intervertebral discs is crucial to maintaining a healthy, pain-free spine. If the position of the discs is compromised in any way, then you are in danger of experiencing a bulging, herniated, or slipped disc. Almost 90 percent of disc injuries occur in the lumbar (low-back) area of the spine, most frequently between L4 and L5 and L5 and S1. As you can see from the figure, when a disc herniation occurs, the gel-like substance in the middle of the disc (nucleus pulposus) pushes its way outside the disc and starts to press against nerve roots. Pressure on a nerve root can cause debilitating pain that can run all the way down the back or side of the leg.
The two main causes of disc herniation are normal wear and tear (also called degenerative disc disease) and a traumatic event. Normal wear and tear on the spine happens every day, as we call upon the discs to cushion the spine while we bend, twist, rotate, and carry heavy objects. Over time, the discs will start to wear down and lose their ability to effectively withstand these forces. We can help maintain and improve upon the health of our spinal discs by enhancing good posture and good muscle tone; this is where core strength comes into play.
The key to building the type of core necessary to prevent low-back pain is to choose exercises that help maintain the spine in its neutral position. In its proper position, the lumbar spine should exhibit a slight lordotic curve of 4 to 7 degrees in men and 7 to 10 degrees in women. In other words, your low back should have a very subtle arch or extension. When the lumber spine is tucked under, it goes into flexion, which forces the spine into an unnatural position and puts undue stress on those crucial intervertebral discs. Abdominal crunches not only compromise the position of your spine but also force the cervical (neck) spine into an excessively flexed position, causing neck and upper-back pain. Needless to say, avoiding improper spinal positions should be a priority in any exercise routine.
How Is Your Dynamic Posture?
Not only do we need to maintain good static posture while we’re standing or sitting but we also need to keep this posture during movement. Dynamic posture, or the position of our bodies during movement, is just as important as static posture, but it’s often overlooked.
One of the quickest ways I can tell whether or not a client has good dynamic posture is to have her do a squat with her arms held straight up overhead. If she collapses forward during the squat, rounding her shoulders and letting the chest fall toward the legs, that’s a telltale indicator that the core muscles aren’t strong enough to support the spinal column. In other words, the dynamic posture of the spine is compromised.
Adapted from Core Envy: A 3-Step Guide to a Strong, Sexy Core by Allison Westfahl with permission of VeloPress.