Abs are somewhat like uninformed scientific opinions, everyone has them regardless of age, gender, or physical location.
However, you may find the two are often interrelated – many individuals have uninformed “scientific” opinions regarding core training, stored body fat, and spinal injury rates.
While I’m sure the mainstream media has all the best intentions, they often report the watered down, second hand version of most stories. As a result, you’re left to fend for yourself and figure out the truth. So, you have one of three options:
- Read the studies themselves.
- Default to the “experts” (i.e. mass media) and trust that they have your best judgement in mind.
- Find actual experts who have education and experience in the field with real world results.
Let’s be honest though, most of the time no one actually digs into the data on PubMed. So, as a result, we have a culture relying on hearsay and uneducated opinions.
It’s time to pick option 3 and dive deep.
The Good Old Days…
Remember back in the early 2000s when everyone equated spinal flexion with Ebola and Mad Cow Disease? Turns out, like most things in the fitness industry, we swing way too far in one direction and then end up on the opposite end of the spectrum within the next decade.
Well, as fate would have it, we have reached the end of the stability spectrum. Spinal flexion is actually a normal part of movement as the spine can exhibit up to 45 degrees of flexion as a unit. As such, it’s important to work through graded levels of spinal flexion to increase nervous system tolerance at end range.
Here’s an excellent low load drill you can use to start exposing yourself to end range spinal flexion while in a supported position:
Milo of Croton: A Real World Example of Hypertrophy
It doesn’t take an exercise physiologist to figure out how to make a muscle grow. If we look to ancient Greek mythology, we find the story of Milo of Croton and the young bull. If you’re not familiar with this story, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version but it’s rather simplistic by nature.
When Milo was a young man, there was a newborn calf that was birthed near his home. Being an inquisitive young man like most youths his age, he decided that he was going to try to hoist the animal in the air on his shoulders.
He succeeded and returned the next day to recreate the feat. This shouldn’t surprise you, teenage males are always trying to outdo themselves, even in the most ridiculous competitions. None the less, Milo returned and continued to hoist the calf on his shoulders for the next few years.
4 years later, Milo and the calf were both much larger. Why? Well, at the end of the day your body’s main goal is to survive. When we lift weights it’s inherently damaging to our musculoskeletal system (transiently at least).
However, most of that damage occurs through the eccentric (i.e. lowering) portion of the movement. Hence why intensity techniques such as accentuated eccentrics can cause excessively high levels of muscular soreness.
The abs are like any other muscle group, you need to take them through a complete range of motion to promote hypertrophy. When one limits themselves to only stabilization movements, they limit the hypertrophic potential of the abdominals.
This is also why the argument, “You don’t need core work if you squat and deadlift heavy” is a logical fallacy. There is a bevy of research to disprove that ideology but if you think about it critically given what we’ve just discussed, even those with zero background in physics or biomechanics can still comprehend the poor logic supporting that argument.
Stable but Weak?
You know, it’s funny, many physical therapists and personal trainers engrain the idea that a “weak low back” or “poor core stability” translates into lower back pain and injury. However, there is some in-vitro (i.e. taking place outside a living organism) research showing that disc herniations are possible even in a neutral spine position.1
Again, you can argue the validity of the study given the methods but it appears that we don’t really know as much about spinal flexion and stability as we think we do.
Also, I would go as far as to say, we don’t really know as much about pain as we think we do. I touched upon this briefly in a previous article but if you’re unfamiliar with pain science, you’ll likely find this very interesting:
“If posture was really as simple as some folks make it out to be, then why have multiple studies confirmed that 20-70% of patients with “anatomical abnormalities” (i.e. disc bulges/herniations, labral tears, spinal stenosis, meniscal tears, etc.), present with no history of pain?”
Kind of makes you wonder, huh? We vilify the crunch, yet we recommend kettlebell swings which can incur 25°+ of spinal flexion.2 Interestingly enough, the kettlebell swing has comparable levels of compression and shearing forces compared to the sit-up so maybe it’s time to reexamine this reductionist thought process regarding core training?
Not only that, if you participate in literally any hobbies besides lifting weights, spinal flexion is nearly unavoidable. Golf, tennis, snowboarding, skiing, rowing, etc. they all incur mild to moderate amounts of loaded flexion.
But, if you look at longitudinal data on flexion based sports, you will notice that there isn’t a higher prevalence of back pain as compared to sports which occur primarily within “neutral” positions.3
So, if you’re bound to encounter spinal flexion during lifting, sports, or even life (aka tying your shoes), then wouldn’t it make sense to gradually train that range of motion?
The caveat here is that aggressively loading spinal flexion doesn’t look to be the wisest idea long term. I’m not trying to validate your biomechanically poor deadlifts, I’m merely suggesting the use of graded progressions which allow one to train a full range of motion in flexion.
If you’ve worked through the cat/camel progression above, then consider something simple like tumbling/rolling, or even Turkish getups. If you want to work eccentric control through flexion, here are two practical examples you can utilize:
- Seek to exhale as you curl your knees towards your face.
- Squeeze your knees together the whole time (use a foam roller if necessary).
- Make the eccentric (lowering portion) as long as physically possible and remain in control throughout.
- START LIGHT – I cannot emphasize this enough. Utilize just bodyweight or a 10-25lb plate initially. The goal is not a large load so don’t slap on a set of 45s and go to town.
- Move slowly – focus on what you’re doing and try to segmentally curl the spine down one piece at a time as you exhale into the movement.
- Don’t bounce at the bottom, let the arms hang freely and relax.
What Does All This Mean?
So, to recap: spinal flexion is not inherently bad, your spine was designed to flex. However, loading the spine aggressively while it moves into flexion (aka squatting or deadlift in a poor position) is likely a bad idea given the bevy of research suggesting that spinal joints only have a given number of flexion and extension cycles.
But, spinal flexion can and should be trained; however, you need a systematic approach with exercise selection which ensures the overload is gradual and progressive in nature. Crunches aren’t going to jack up your intervertebral discs but there are likely better, more effective options out there.
- ISSLS prize winner: how loading rate influences disc failure mechanics: a microstructural assessment of internal disruption.
- Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads.
- The prevalence of low back pain among former elite cross-country skiers, rowers, orienteerers, and nonathletes: a 10-year cohort study.