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Just because you see people doing crunches and sit-ups at the gym doesn’t make it good for you or right to do. Why not?
The research has been and continues to be clear. Repetitive rounding of the spine, particularly in an action like a sit-up or crunch, creates disc pressure and strain to the spine. This can, with time and repetition, create disc herniations and debilitating injury.
Pete McCall, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise, told the Wall St Journal that sit-ups are “an antiquity of exercise best left in the dustbin of fitness history”. As of 2015, The US army put 10,000 soldiers through a pilot of a revamped physical fitness test that excludes sit-ups. And one study found that 56 percent of all soldiers’ injuries related to the old fitness test was because of sit-ups.
Someone whose research I follow and whose opinion I value highly is Stuart McGill, a professor who’s been studying the biomechanics of the spine for more than 3 decades at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Using both spine specimens and real people, he’s conducted studies to understand the effects of repetitive motions like flexion (rounding of the spine) seen in sit-ups and crunches.
What he’s found is that crunches and traditional sit-ups place 3,300 newtons (the equivalent of 340 kg or 749 lbs!) of compressive force on the spine when bent in flexion. These forces can squeeze a bent disc’s nucleus to the point that it bulges – pressing on nerves and causing back pain, and potentially leading to a herniated disc. According to McGill, “There are only so many bends in your spine until the discs eventually herniate.” Check out this enlightening interview with McGill, The man who wants to kill crunches.
Why do people still do them?
Because that’s what they were taught in school, on their teams, in boot camps etc. Until everyone is up to date and on the same page with current science and research, people will continue down the same path of “no pain no gain” that they’re familiar with. Your core — which includes your rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, transverse abdominis, pelvic floor, etc. — is designed to help your body stabilize and brace against twisting and bending (not generate it).
Sit-ups and crunches eliminate the bracing and can put your body into unhealthy positions like pulling your neck forward, rounding your shoulders and flexing the spine which can result in back pain.
So what specifically can we do to target our core and keep us safe? (videos below) Don’t worry I’ve got your back! These three exercises will target your core and keep you safe!
1) The BoneSmart Pilates Chest Lift
Performed with an inflatable mini ball behind the upper back, this exercise gives you the sensation of doing a crunch without the negative effects. Instead of taking your body from a flat, supine position, to a flexed rounded position, you begin in spine extension (slight back bending draped back over the ball, hands interlaced behind your head).
Doing it this way eliminates the flexion/compression component of your spine while maintaining the strengthening component. View “Chest Lift” in action below!
2) Bird Dog, the familiar exercise done on hands and knees, strengthens the core and muscles in the back of the spine by extending your arm and opposite leg parallel to the floor and holding it still for 10 sec or more. You get strong by bracing your core, breathing and isolating movement to occur only at the hip and shoulder, not in the spine. That combination of stabilization with isolation is the secret to the power of this exercise. Watch Bird Dog below!
3) Planks in various positions are perfect for strengthening and bracing your core. In my DVD’s I take you from standing planks in the Counter series to the more challenging straight arm, forearm and side plank series. My BoneSmart Pilates Youtube channel has a Plank Challenge Playlist that offers you a variety of planks of varying difficulty to target all your key core muscles and get you strong while keeping you safe.
For 5 years now, I’ve been teaching active agers with a slant toward “neutral spine” training and avoiding flexion of the spine, particularly for those with back issues or bone density compromise like osteopenia and osteoporosis. In 2013, the BoneSmart Pilates® DVD series was conceived. I began with Exercise to Prevent or Reverse Osteoporosis which targeted those with osteoporosis and avoided all flexion.
Soon after, I realized that other active agers, not just those with increased bone loss, would benefit from this approach. The Aging Strong Series followed that first DVD and addresses a broader spectrum of the active aging population that also benefits from smart core training while focusing on additional areas important to aging. In all my DVD’s, we work on creating strength, flexibility and balance while honoring the integrity of our spine and discs. There are no sit-ups, crunches or flexion (rounding of the spine) in any of my BoneSmart Pilates® DVD’s.
To conclude, you don’t need to do crunches or sit-ups to get a strong core. The science speaks for itself. “Ditch the Crunch”!
Thought provoking and beautiful in many ways, the “Real Bodies” exhibit that I visited in Las Vegas this month, explores perfectly preserved human bodies and helps me connect in a deeper sense, to what it means to be alive. With so many intricate and vital organs packed into our bodies and all the conscious and unconscious actions that occur, it’s a wonder to me how we live, breathe and move every single day, seemingly effortlessly.
As a PT I have a nerdy interest in anatomy and understanding our inner workings. Something that really resonated for me in this exhibit, and that has a direct impact on you, is the diaphragm and its vital function in our lives.
It’s well known that breathing is an activity that crosses cultural, racial and gender lines. We are all required to breathe in order to survive. “Without oxygen, brain cells begin to die within five minutes.” (Body – the Complete Human ~National Geographic)
This longitudinal section of a body was on display at the exhibit. The diaphragm-that I’m pointing out here-looks like a thin layer of muscle which sits below the lungs and heart and separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. It’s sitting just above the liver and is the major muscle of respiration. In its resting state, it looks like the shape of a mushroom or parachute and when it contracts, if flattens out moving downward creating more space for the lungs to fill on an inhalation. During exhalation, the diaphragm passively relaxes and returns to its original dome shape.
Mindful controlled breathing can be used as a tool to calm our nervous system and control our blood pressure. If we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (think fight or flight) is triggered causing our respiratory rate, blood pressure and heart rate to go up. Our breathing becomes shallow expelling more carbon dioxide and inhaling less oxygen. If we’re continually stressed for long periods, our body adapts to this faulty breathing pattern thinking this is the new normal. It causes our diaphragm to weaken resulting in overuse of our breathing accessory muscles (scalenes) and our shoulder muscles. This will, over time lead to neck and shoulder pain.
Research shows that improving our diaphragmatic breathing can help decrease our stress and conditions related to stress such as high blood pressure, headaches, neck pain and anxiety (Ehrer et al 2012).
Pilates and Breathing
Of course I can’t help but draw parallels between the use of the diaphragm and Pilates.
Did you know the primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm, is also a key core muscle providing spine stability along with several layers of abdominals, the multifidi in our backs close to our spine, pelvic floor muscles and fascia? Anatomically, the diaphragm has origins on the xiphoid process (bottom of sternum), the upper lumbar vertebra and the lower 6 ribs with their costal cartilage (which by the way interdigitate with Transverus abdominus (TA). The insertion is the central tendon that has no bony attachment. The diaphragm is primarily a muscle of inspiration, contracting to get air in and the abdominals and intercostals (muscles between the ribs) assist primarily with exhalation. (Kendall, F. Muscles Testing and Function 1993)
As the diaphragm contracts, it also helps to stiffen and stabilize the thoracolumbar junction by pulling on the tendon that attaches to the upper lumbar vertebrae. In addition as the diaphragm contracts and lowers, the increase in intra-abdominal pressure is met by an increase in TA and pelvic floor or “core” muscle activation to allow trunk stability during breathing and movement. From this we can ascertain that the diaphragm is integral to core stability. Also important to note is when the aforementioned muscle groups work out of sync, it can lead to low back pain and problems of lumbopelvic instability
Joseph Pilates is quoted as saying, “Above all, learn to breathe correctly!” He highlighted the importance of breath in his system, inventing exercises like “the Hundred” to create an internal shower for the body, heating the body up from the inside out and improving circulation. (Pilates, Return to Life 1945)
When we apply diaphragmatic breathing and adapt it for Pilates-otherwise known as “Pilates breathing”, we maintain focus on the 3 dimensional expansion of our lungs/ribcage seen in diaphragmatic breathing, however, instead of expanding the belly, we maintain abdominal control and do not puff the belly. This provides safety and stability for the spine when doing exercises like “bird dog” on all fours, where we lift opposite arm and leg in the air and need to keep a stable spine. It’s also important in many other exercises including “the Hundred” to keep the spine from arching or the pelvis from rocking. Similar to diaphragmatic breathing, we encourage a multi dimensional expansion of our ribs allowing for greater lung capacity and rib cage mobility. Does this mean we hold the stomach in taut in at all times in Pilates? No, there are times when relaxed expansion is fine, it’s all specific to the exercise and what your goal is at the moment.
Try this exercise with me to feel your own rib cage expansion
When do we exhale and inhale during an exercise in Pilates?
I get this question a lot and according to what I believe, there are suggested ways of breathing for particular exercises that support the movement. For instance, when you do extension-think the “Swan” exercise (lying on your belly and lifting your head and chest), an inhalation will help and support extension. If you are lying on your back and doing a chest lift (curl up of the head and shoulders) the exhalation supports this movement and triggers the activation of your core muscles to assist in the rise.
With that said, there are many exercises, like footwork on the Pilates Reformer, where different breathing cues are taught by different schools of thought. Instead of adhering to one school of thought, I look at the person in front of me to see which breath pattern best supports their movement, promotes a neutral spine position and is most organic to them. That is the breath pattern we choose.
If you find that you’re stressed about which way to breath for every exercise, you may find yourself holding your breath and that will work against you. Bottom line, when in doubt, just breathe!
Allow me to share with you, an excerpt from an inspiring quote featured in the Real Bodies exhibit.
Life begins with a gasp, a sudden rush of air into the lungs followed by the harsh cry of a newborn “I am ready”. And so it begins, a lifetime of breaths.
Inhale, exhale, repeat
…Beyond culture, beyond race, beyond religion breathing is an undeniable need shared by all. This is inspiration, an invitation to the spirit of life to fill the empty sponges within us, yet again. A willful defiant act of our unconscious, it declares I AM, again and again through the cycle of minutes and years. With each breath comes a new beginning making all things possible.
Inhale, exhale, repeat
My blog that inspired this article is here!
Osteoporosis Awareness Month is in May and I wanted to give you plenty of notice for my workshops in the area. I provide ongoing support as an educator for American Bone Health to increase community awareness of strategies that promote safety and improve bone health
Freedom from Fractures Presentation in Mountain View, CA
When: Wed. May 2 at 7pm
Where: 2500 Grant Rd at El Camino Hospital
Main Conference Room F/G
Freedom from Fractures Presentation in Palo Alto, CA
When: Friday, May 4, 1 to 2:30pm
Where: “Avenidas” at Cubberley Community Center
4000 Middlefield Road Building I, 2nd floor
To register call 650-289-5400 visit us online at the Avenidas website. Here is a direct link to registration: Class number 5808 – Register here
I’ve recently had an interesting observation. The notion, by typically younger people, that Aging Strong Pilates® is for the elderly, an unchallenging gentle workout.
Yesterday I substitute taught a Pilates class for a fellow teacher at Stanford and after class, one of the participants, in his 30’s, asked if I teach other classes there because he really liked the class. When I mentioned that I teach “Aging Strong Pilates” at Stanford, his reaction was a mix of “is that a senior class and “is that an easy class”? I clarified that it’s exactly what he just experienced and enjoyed in the class I just taught.
Here’s what 2 reviewers have said about of my Aging Strong DVD’s:
“I am in my 40s and I love these exercises. They are gentle but they can really be killers! ”
“The teacher is very thorough in her explanations however, some of the exercises are much more difficult than I expected. Since it is called Aging Strong, I erroneously assumed it was for older people at more of a beginner level.”
I want to paint a clear picture of exactly WHO Aging Strong Pilates is for (both in my group classes and on my DVD’s) and how it’s unique.
Let’s start with “Who is aging?”
Is it people over 40?, over 60?, over 80?
It’s none of those answers…we are ALL aging. Aging is integral to human development yet society fears it, even dreads it. There comes a point in our development where we lose that false sense of omnipotence. Perhaps we’re the victim of repetitive stress injuries, back pain, joint stiffness, chronic illness…you name it. At that point when you realize you’re not invincible, that you need to “train” to get older, that’s the time to try Aging Strong Pilates®. That actual age will be different for everyone as we are all genetically and biomechanically unique. That’s why people in my classes range from their 30’s through 80’s and they all get a challenging yet safe movement experience.
How is Aging Strong Pilates different from other Pilates DVDs?
Aging Strong Pilates targets the areas of our body susceptible to decline as we age including but not limited to, the hips and legs, the spine and balance. I’ve designed the program in a way that is modified for those with bone density issues and other conditions commonly associated with aging, to keep you safe yet challenged.
Pilates classes have an abundance of flexion based (rounded spine) exercises that are ill advised for those with low bone mass and many other diagnoses. These workouts keep you in a safe range of motion that will still have you trembling but keep you out of pain. There’s also a focus on standing weight-bearing functional training. The workouts are by no means easy but you’re guided with clear demonstrations and verbal cues.
As I reflect on my own aging, perched at the threshold of entering my 6th decade next month, I notice the changes in my body, I’ve got more grays in my hair (that I still color), more wrinkles on my face and my neck is starting to look like a Shar Pei…but you know what…I don’t FEEL old and really, isn’t that what matters? I actually feel strong and flexible with abundant energy, a passion for teaching and a purpose in life. I’m grateful for my health, family, friends and you!
Studies show that the second half of life brings more happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction then the days of youth. I’m passionate about helping you meet those years head on with strength, vigor and health!
If you purchase a Quest Vest using this link — you’ll get a free 15 minute skype session with me, and I’ll show you how to customize the vest with a unique postural prop to improve the health of your spine and posture! I’ll also guide you through a simple spine sparing core exercise. Just shoot me an email after your purchase at firstname.lastname@example.org.
150 Wortham Court
Mountain View, CA 94040