In my experience teaching yoga to people with back pain, I have seen the benefits of strengthening the abdominal muscles for posture and back health. It is important to do these exercises in a careful and safe way. If you would like to learn how to strengthen your abdominals without straining back or neck muscles, this blog is for you. Maybe, like me, you have tried sit-ups to strengthen your abs, only to find that this hurts your lower back and neck. The classic sit-ups, where the chest lifts all the way towards your knees, cause too much pressure on the spinal discs. Abdominal crunches, on the other hand, prevent this stress for the spine by keeping the lower back on the floor. But even these crunches can be done in a way that is stressful and inefficient. Read on to find out how to do safe abdominal crunches for your back. We will look at two different abdominal muscles: the rectus abdominis and the oblique abdominis.
Abdominal crunches for the rectus abdominis
The rectus abdominis is a vertical, flat, paired muscle that runs from the sternum to the pubic bone in the front of the body. It flexes the lumbar region, contracting when we round the chest or do a pelvic tilt. It also contracts when we compress the abdomen, e.g. when breathing out strongly.
-To strengthen this muscle safely, lie on a soft but firm surface with your knees bent and hands behind your head.
-Keep your neck as relaxed as possible by looking up at the ceiling with the chin relaxed to the throat and the weight of the head resting in your hands.
-Exhale and lift the shoulders and shoulder blades off the floor.
-Inhale and lower the shoulders and head.
-Stay up for the whole of the exhalation. This makes the exercise harder and you may have to do fewer repetitions.
-Repeat until you feel it is enough: find a good compromise between comfort and exhaustion. You want to challenge yourself but not overdo it.
-After the exercise, relax the neck muscles by slowly turning the head from side to side.
Abdominal crunches for the oblique abdominis
The oblique abdominal muscles run diagonally on the side and front of the abdomen. The internal obliques lie below the external oblique abdominis. They assist with forced exhalations or sucking in the abdomen and with flexion and rotation, as in side bending and twisting movements.
Check out this youtube video to follow how you can strengthen these muscles:
The video shows how to:
-Keep the head as relaxed as possible in the hands.
-Think of the shoulder moving over rather than the elbow.
-Leave the elbows pointing out to the side. If you bend the elbow forward towards the opposite knee you will actually do less work.
-Move one shoulder and shoulder blade up and over to the other side while the other shoulder anchors you down.
-Rest the neck muscles afterwards by rolling the head form side to side.
If your neck still hurts after these movements, please check out my other video here, in which I demonstrate how to strengthen the rectus abdominis with the head relaxed on the floor. How to work the obliques while leaving the neck relaxed is subject of a future blog.