With beach weather only a few months away, some are again striving for desirable “6-pack abs” that show off toned muscles. But a 6-pack does more than just look good, since the strong core muscles involved also benefit and protect the spine, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
Core muscles are those in your back, sides, abdomen, pelvis, and buttocks. Among others, they include the rectus abdominus muscles (or “abs”) at the front of your abdomen and the transversus abdominus muscles running horizontally across your lower abdomen that are often called the “lower abs.”
So-called 6-pack abs show off the strength and definition of these two groups of core muscles, Dr. Chang says. But when it comes to protecting your spine, these, and other core muscles, work in tandem to reduce and even prevent back pain, he adds.
“Core muscle strength is essential to the health of your spine every single day,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “We can’t bend, lift, twist or move quickly without the help of our core muscles, and these activities are precisely the ones that can result in back injuries. That’s why it’s smart to proactively boost our core.”
Advantages to the spine
How do strong core muscles benefit the spine? Primarily by taking stress off the discs and joints that comprise the spine, which consists of 33 bony vertebrae that run from the top of the neck to the tailbone, Dr. Chang says.
“By keeping vertebrae lined up properly, strong core muscles provide stability to your trunk and prevent any abnormal stress on your spine joints,” he says. “Another often-overlooked advantage of strong core muscles is how they improve balance, which can help you avoid falls and exercise more easily. Both, of course, also benefit your spine.”
Do not be misled by the notion that major exercise is needed to strengthen your core. While boosting your core can certainly include more strenuous movements such as planks, sit-ups, push-ups and crunches, the good news is that this can also be accomplished with smaller movements that won’t orsen any existing back problems or pain, Dr. Chang notes.
“If you’re already doing exercises to strengthen your core, that’s ideal,” he says. “If you’re not, talk to your doctor, physical therapist or trainer before you start. You’ll get advice and tips on how to begin safely.”
Exercises to get started
One huge plus of core exercises is that most can be easily done at home without any extra expense or equipment, Dr. Chang says. He suggests these beginner-level exercises to strengthen your core:
Deep spine stabilizer: Lie on your side and bend at the waist, placing your hips and knees in a 90-degree position. Without moving hips, lift your ankles about two inches. Return slowly to start position and repeat 10 times on each side.
Transverse abdominal contraction: Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat. Tighten abdominal muscles by pulling in your belly button toward your spine and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 10 times, twice a day.
March: Lie on your back with feet flat and both knees bent. Pull in your belly button toward your spine, then lift your left foot to a 90-degree angle off the floor. Return to original pose, then repeat using right foot while holding your core muscles in. Return to start pose and relax abdominal muscles. Repeat 10 times on each side, twice a day.