One thing that shocks people about me is when I say that I love training my abs. I just love abs day. I’m constantly looking for new abs exercises because I like new challenges, and you can’t get bored if you know 100 different ways to exercise something. But for many women, it hurts to do abdominal exercise. It hurts to lay flat on their back or while completing planks which are notorious for hurting backs. This causes women to just skip training their abs. And this is what Martha told me when I first met her.
Martha said “How can you like to train your abs? It hurts when I lay flat on my back with or without my knees bent. I can't even do modified planks without pain.” She went on to tell me that her physician told her not to train abs because she has a herniated disc. So her thought was that if it hurts and the doctor says it's not good then I'm just not gonna do it.
I asked a little bit more about what she could or couldn't do.... Well, I make it through my aerobic classes, I do boot camps. And I don't have any problems. I just avoid doing the ad stuff, but I do squats and lunges and all the upper body exercise without any issues. My back doesn't really hurt when I get done.
But I pressed her on the “It doesn't really hurt” statement. Your back either hurts or it doesn’t hurt. She explained “I mean it hurts a little but since I have a herniated disc I assumed it would be a little sore after working out.”
I asked if her back hurts any other time? For instance, does it bother you to vacuum. “Oh no, well only if I vacuum my whole downstairs then it’ll be sore.
What if you carry groceries? Or lift up water bottles? “I have my husband carry the groceries so that is not really an issue.”
Okay, well, if we train your abs then you can get rid of all that lower back pain and it will stabilize your disc herniation. She looked at me like I had two heads because of the words “ab exercises” since she had just told me it hurt to do abdominal exercises.
I ,of course, started to explain to her how her abdominal muscles are supposed to stabilize her back? It's not the back muscles that stabilize your back while you move, which seems counter-intuitive, but your spine muscles, the ones that are along your back, are actually only there to help your spine stay straight. They’re only supposed to keep your whole torso stable while you lift or move things. Your abdominal muscles are supposed to help you move through your environment and keep your back safe and stable.
In fact, it's kind of cool that your rectus abdominis, the pretty beach muscle, goes from your ribs down to your pelvis, helps keep your pelvis in alignment. Your hips can be rotated forward or they can be rotated backward or they can be maintained in a neutral position, and that's all based on the strength of your rectus abdominis. And then you have something called your transverse abdominis, which runs in a horizontal line around your mid-section, and attaches to your hips and into your ribs. It tightens like a corset. So that is what helps stabilize your torso when you're lifting things, when you're doing your squats or lunges.
So if you're having pain while doing exercise or with any activity, that means one of those muscles is not doing their job.
Now, there could be lots of reasons for the pain, which is what makes it complicated to figure out why your back hurts. You figure your pelvis is made of 3 bones that all need to be properly stabilized while you move to prevent pain. Then you have the 5 bones in your lower back that all need to be stabilized by muscles and ligaments. That’s not to mention your ribs and diaphragm that can also affect your abdominal muscles.
But this is what I do everyday. I help women stop their back pain while doing abdominal exercises by looking how their pelvis is positioned, how much flexibility they have in their legs. How do all of these body parts work together when you're trying to do all your favorite activities? By observing all of these things I can determine how effective your abdominal muscles are when you're trying to do those things. There can be weakness or maybe the muscles simply don’t know what their job is anymore. Which if you've had babies, it's possible that you have all the abdominal strength that you need, but those muscles just don't know what they're supposed to do. For instance they could be firing out of order, so this muscle is supported to work first, but it is trying to contract last in a sequence. So it just takes a little bit of retraining to make every work well together and without pain.
Martha was still a little bit hesitant, but she was like, I'm just gonna come in and see what you're actually talking about, and so she came in for an evaluation. I looked at her hips, how her pelvis was positioned in standing and then when she moved. I had her get into the positions that she told me would bother her, and she showed me which abdominal exercises caused her pain.
With all this information I was able to help her strengthen the things that we needed to strengthen. She learned how to properly and effectively use her abdominal muscles while exercising and with all other activities.
Now Martha is great! She doesn't have to skip the abdominal exercise during her bootcamp classes. She doesn't have to be afraid of vacuuming, lifting her groceries or the occasional desire to throw your kids into the pool.
So that’s the power of your abdominal muscles…when they are strong they keep you back healthy and abdominal exercise won’t hurt.
I hope that this information helps. If you have any questions about your specific situation, feel free to send me a message, I would love to hear from me.
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WE HELP ACTIVE ADULTS OVERCOME THEIR ACHES AND PAINS TO GET THEM BACK TO THEIR FAVORITE ACTIVITIES WITHOUT MEDICATION, INJECTIONS OR SURGERIES.
Dr. Molly McDonald