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The “Abdominal Myths – Part 3A ” What do you mean ‘The crunch machine’ at the gym is useless and causing my back pain?” July 25, 2009

Posted by fitmontclair in Abdominal Training, Fat Loss, Fitness in Montclair, Group Exercise, Health & Exercise, Injury Prevention, Women's Health.

Hi Everyone,

Glad your are all still with me!

Well another week has gone by and I am still amazed by several things: The readership for the Blog is increasing (THANK YOU!), I have not received any death threats, no one has e-mailed me saying that I am full of **it and a liar. So with all these positive things happening lets take the concept of CORRECT abdominal training a little further…..

You may have noticed I numbered this post 3A, that is because the next segment is a very detailed topic and I don’t want to overload people with too much info. Before we begin I need my usual disclaimer: Any exercises mentioned or demonstrated ARE FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY!

Everyone is unique and needs their own exercise program based on an assessment of their physical capabilities, injuries and overall health status – Think of it this way, “Would you take someone else’s  prescription medicine?” (I hope you all answer “NO!”) SO NONE OF YOU SHOULD DO SOMEONE ELSE’S WORKOUT!! – Unfortunately many so called “ Fitness Professionals” give you their own workout with the idea “if it works for me, it will work for you” – totally untrue for many, many reasons, the foremost being genetics. Unless you were their twin brother / sister this ridiculous philosophy could never work!!  (it also holds true for copying workouts from books & magazines – useless and potentially DANGEROUS!)

Now that I have finished protecting myself, let’s start looking at correct ways to train the “Abs” – first please understand if you have not fixed your posture as outlined in Part 2, you could injure your: Back, Neck, and Shoulders. You could also make existing problems worse!

FUNCTION vs. FICTION – do you know the difference?

To properly choose and perform abdominal exercises you first need to understand the basic function of the muscles AND THAT THE ABS ARE NOT THE CORE!!!!

Core training is a WHOLE DIFFERENT CONCEPT!!

I will give you some VERY sound advice right now: If you are currently having someone design your workouts, train you or you participate in a “Core Training” class and the CORE workout begins with crunches or sit-ups –“GET OUT NOW, BEFORE THEY INJURE YOU!!” The abdominals are part of the core, but NOT the whole core and PROPER core training NEVER, EVER begins with crunch-type exercises!!!!

Anyone who tells you core training begins with crunches or sit-ups is an IDIOT and a danger to people!!!

O.K back to the correct function of the abs!


HOLD ON TO SOMETHING, TAKE A DEEP BREATHE AND PLEASE KEEP AN OPEN MIND (Remember “the mind is like a parachute, it only  works when it is open!”)

The PRIMARY function of the abdominal muscles is TO PREVENT UNWANTED MOVEMENT IN THE LUMBAR SPINE (low back)!! IT IS NOT TO FLEX AND EXTEND THE SPINE OR TO ROTATE IT!!!  i.e. crunches, sit-ups, twisting crunches are not good for you! The true function of these muscles is to prevent excessive or uncontrolled: flexion, extension and rotation of the spine!!

Now, the abs can flex, extend and rotate the spine but these are often  UNWANTED or HAZARDOUS MOTIONS and should NOT be in an exercise program if anyone has a current or past history of back or neck pain! (again, this is why exercises given with no assessment are UNPROFESSIONAL, RECKLESS, and DANGEROUS!!)  

Think of your spine like holding a credit card between your thumb and index finger; you can only bend the card so many times before it cracks – your spine is the same, especially if you have or had back pain or injuries!

 To really understand the abdominal wall and its function we need to look at how it is designed. The best analogy I have heard is by Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the foremost experts in spine biomechanics in the world!

Think of the abs as a lattice work; the abs are a series of SHORT muscles, encased in a sheet of connective tissue and each has it own pair of nerves (this allows each segment to stabilize a particular area of the spine )

So why do we put a lattice work in a window or wall – to prevent compression and collapse of the structure! Guess what?  Your abs serve the same purpose for your spine!

A lattice to stiffen and protect the spine!

If the true function of the abs was to bend the torso forward i.e crunch type movement, then we would have a big, LONG muscle like a hamstring running down the front of the body, not the “six-pack” arrangement we all are born with.

SIDE NOTE: we ALL have a “six-pack” it is just hidden in some people below body fat. BODY FAT  LEVELS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH ABDOMINAL OR CORE STRENGTH.

Some of the people who are the strongest & most powerful athletes (male AND female) DO NOT have visible abs- Sumo wrestlers, Football linemen, Powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters etc. Body fat levels are primarily the result of 2 things – nutrition and genetics. Body fat is NEVER an indicator of strength, power or athleticism!                                

Now before you all start calling me names, cursing me out and coming to my house  with torches etc.  Please read the following quotes from some of the WORLD’S TOP DOCTORS, PHYSICAL THERAPISTS, TRAINERS, AND SCIENTISTS. (note: all the references are from peer reviewed medical journals and text books – NO FITNESS MAGAZINES!)

The reason I give these quotes and references is that I never want anyone to think I make this stuff up! I feel it is my PROFESSIONAL duty and responsibility to provide the highest quality information and training that I can. I was taught by several great trainers and therapists that if you cannot explain how an exercise or stretch affects a person’s body: anatomically, physiologically, and neurologically – you are not justified in prescribing its use!

So let’s see what the experts say the TRUE functions of the abs really are:

(Thanks to Strength Coaches  Mike Boyle & Nick Tumminello for making me aware of this info)

First up:

Dr.  Shirely Sahrmann in her book: Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, Mosby 2002 states “during most daily activities, the primary role of the abdominal muscles is to provide isometric support and limit the degree of rotation of the trunk…A large percentage of low back problems occur because the abdominal muscles are not maintaining tight control over the rotation between the pelvis and the spine at the L5- S1 level. ” (2002 p.71)

World Class Strength Coach Mike Boyle

[The lumbar range of motion that many personal trainers and coaches have attempted to create may not even be desirable and is probably potentially injurious. The ability to resist or to prevent rotation may in fact be more important than the ability to create it. Clients or athletes must be able to prevent rotation before we should allow them to produce it – Coach Mike Boyle discussing Dr. Sahrmann’s above statement]

Sahrmann goes on to note a key fact that has been overlooked in the performance field. The overall range of lumbar rotation is …approx 13 degrees. The rotation between each segment from T10 to L5 is 2 degrees. The greatest rotational range is between L5 and S1, which is 5 degrees…The thoracic spine, not the lumbar spine should be the site of greatest amount of rotation of the trunk… when an individual practices rotational exercises, he or she should be instructed to “think about the motion occurring in the area of the chest ” (Sahrmann, p61-62)

How many of you were given this DANGEROUS stretch by a “Trainer” or in a class??

Sahrmann places the final icing on the cake with these statements; “Rotation of the lumbar spine is more dangerous than beneficial and rotation of the pelvis and lower extremities to one side while the trunk remains stable or is rotated to the other side is particularly dangerous.”  (Sahrmann p. 72)


Porterfield and DeRosa- Mechanical Low Back Pain, WB Saunders 1998.

Porterfield and DeRosa in their book, Mechanical Low Back Pain, come to the same conclusion as Sahrmann. Porterfield and DeRosa state “Rather than considering the abdominals as flexors and rotators of the trunk- for which they certainly have the capacity- their function might be better viewed as antirotators and antilateral flexors of the trunk.” (Porterfield and Derosa, WB Saunders 1998, p99)

Need more proof:

According to Dr. Wolf Schamberger in The Malalignment Syndrome: Implications for Medicine and Sport (2002):

Loads on the facet joints of the lumbar spine may play a major role in low-back pain. Shear forces resulting from axial rotation and flexion-extension motions (compressive shear loads) are mainly transmitted through the facet joints. Although traumatic or transient shear forces will be resisted by both the disc and the facets, the disc’s viscoelasticity causes slowly applied or constant shear loads to pass through the facet joints.” (Hassan A. Serhan, Ph.D.; Gus Varnavas, M.D.; Andrew P. Dooris, Ph.D.; Avinash Patwardhan, Ph.D.; Michael Tzermiadianos, M.D.; Biomechanics of the Posterior Lumbar Articulating Elements, 2007)

This article than goes further into the types of pain caused by facet stress and compression:

“Facet joint compression leads to at least three causes of back pain: spinal osteoarthritis; bulging and herniated discs; and nerve root impingement… Because the nervous system is responsible for many other activities, the effects of facet joint compression are very wide ranging.”

And one more really good one:

Fact and Fallacies of Fitness (2003)

Dr. Mel Siff thoroughly explains why the prone alternating superman and exercises like it are foolish and dangerous exercises.

“The combination of lateral bending and rotation constitutes one of the most dangerous maneuvers for the lumbar spine.”(p. 89)

Siff than continues to make a very important point and explains why rotary training exercises are much safer and more functional when performed in an upright position

(remember what I said in the last post about how useless seated exercises are- Gordon)

“A certain degree of compressive preloading locks the facet assembly of the spine and makes it more resistant to torsion. This is the reason why trunk rotation without vertical compression may cause disc injury, whereas the same movement performed with compression is significantly safer.” (p. 89)

“Since the lower extremities are heavier than the upper extremities, this can impose a torque or twisting action around the lumbar spine if the action of the extremities isn’t well synchronized and instead of reducing any potential risk of hyperextension, it can add an element of rotation to the extension, thereby making this exercise less safe than controlled gradual simultaneous raising of the legs and arms. In fact, it’s not uncommon for this exercise to cause acute back pain and spasm.” (Siff, p.36)

Siff then goes on to say that “Current research has shown that the superman exercise and several of its variations have little or no benefit on back strength and posture.” (Siff, p.36)

I hope this info wasn’t too shocking, but as you see it is the scientific truth and that is why it is DANGEROUS to get your fitness information from unqualified people and sources i.e. magazines & television!

To sum up the motions that are potentially dangerous;  here are some pictures of the abdominal exercises & movements you DO NOT want to do if you are concerned with keeping a healthy back and living a PAIN FREE life!

Windshield Wiper

OOPS ! I almost forgot one:

Gregory S. Kolt and Lynn Snyder-Mackler in their book Physical Therapies in Sport and Exercise (2003):

“The mechanism of back injury in athletes is normally the same as in the general population (i.e. prolonged and or repeated spinal flexion, flexion and rotation under load).”(p. 250)

Keeping Spinal Surgeons in business!

This is the EXACT position and movement of the stupid and useless crunch machines. They place an excessive  load on the low back with an improper range of motion forcing muscles whose primary role is to extend the spine into a FORWARD FLEXED POSITION UNDER A LOAD!!! (ever wonder why your low back hurts when you get off the crunch machine?? – NOW you now why!)

So here is a great tip for protecting your spine and preventing back & neck pain – STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM ANY CRUNCH MACHINE!!! (this includes all the USELESS garbage sold on late night TV).

I know this was a lot to comprehend and many of you may be in shock or refuse to believe what I have written but it is the TRUTH!!  So now that you understand the TRUE function of the abdominals is NOT to do crunches, sit-ups or rotate your lower back left & right , I will give you some proper abdominal exercises in  “The Abdominal Myths – Part 3B “ The Crunch-Free way to Rock Hard Abs and a Solid Steel Spine!”

Until next time,

Stay Healthy! (Stay OFF the crunch machine!)


Follow all of the “Abdominal Myths Series”- Just click the links below:

The Abdominal Exercise Myths or “I do 200 crunches a day and I’m still fat, and now my neck hurts?” – Part 1

The Abdominal Exercise Myths – Part 2 or “What do you mean I stand funny and have a big @$S !”

The “Abdominal Myths – Part 3A ” What do you mean ‘The crunch machine’ at the gym is useless and causing my back pain?”

The Abdominal Exercise Myths – 3B “Crunch-FREE Exercises for Rock Hard Abs & a Solid Steel Spine!”

The Abdominal Exercise Myths-Part 4A “You can’t make chicken salad from chicken s#it!” – The role of nutrition in abdominal function

The Abdominal Exercise Myths 4B- ” So what the hell can I eat?? – Tips for fast, effective label reading & shopping!”

The Abdominal Myths 4C- Why Soy is NOT a health food! or “The DANGERS OF SOY and why my SON has BREASTS!!!!”

The Abdominal Myths 4D – The Problem with Pasteurized dairy, food allergies & addictions OR Why we need RAW Dairy in N.J.



1. mold allergy symptoms - June 24, 2011

Unfortunately I am having trouble with your RSS . Don’t know why Fail to subscribe to it. Is there anybody else experiencing similar rss problem? Anybody who knows please respond

fitmontclair - July 13, 2011

I am really sorry there is a problem with the RSS feed; actually I am not very familiar with using RSS – it is an option provided by WordPress. Also I apologize for the delayed response but this comment like your other was trapped in the blog spam filter. – I think I now have it set to recognize your e-mail as NOT being spam.

I would contact http://www.Wordpress.com and ask for their help, I wish I could give you more information or help but I just write the posts, WordPress handles all the technical stuff.

Have a great day!


P.S. Watch for new posts coming soon…. I promise!

2. xxxtube - July 7, 2011

Excellent Blog !!!!

fitmontclair - July 13, 2011

Thank You!! Glad you took the time to read the blog & comment. Please feel free to ask any questions and forward the blog to anyone you feel it can help. I don’t mind if you place links to it but please give me credit for the writing as I always do the same for all the authors & information I use in the blog posts.

Have a great day and watch for NEW posts coming soon!


P.S. If you have not read the other parts of the “Abdominal Myth’s” series you might like them as well and there is some good info on allergies to pasteurized dairy and how they affect abdominal appearance & function in the “Problems with pasteurized dairy” post.

3. Richard - October 6, 2011

fascinating, and also a good explanation for my damaged lower back, not going near that stupid crunch machine again…in fact I think I should consult some physiotherapy literature before I embark on a new training regime 🙂
Thanks for the blog

fitmontclair - October 7, 2011

Hi Richard!

Glad you liked the post and the blog; I’m sorry you are having back pain issues. Your idea of getting more info is a good one, an even better one would be to get an assessment from a Sports Physical Therapist or a qualified trainer as to what exercises would be safe for you.

If you are currently having pain, then an M.D., D.C., or P.T. would be the person to see for trainers ARE NOT qualified or licensed to make a diagnosis and unless they have specialized advanced training they are NOT supposed to work with people in pain (they usually work in conjunction with your Dr. or P.T. in those cases).

ANY exercise that causes you pain should be avoided, not just abdominal training! “No Pain, No Gain” – is the mantra of an IDIOT! – Never listen to people who follow this approach…

Most (but not all) back pain during exercise is a combination of poor posture during the day, bad exercise form & selection, and too much forward flexion and flexion under load.

You can consult any of the books I listed in the post, however they are very dry, science based books. If you want one that is more readable and has some effective self-tests and safe back exercises you should check out the book I recommended in the post – “Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance” – By Stuart McGill, PhD. You can get it at Perform Better – cheaper than amazon and in stock!

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask!

Have a great day!


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