by Tom Seabourne
Some sportsmen concentrate on strengthening certain muscle groups depending on their sport. Sprinters work on their legs. But if they do not train their upper bodies they will not run as fast. Similarly, why should a martial artist train his abdominals (abs) when he uses his arms and legs to punch and kick?
Although your abs do not appear to be involved in karate, they are. You can move with increased balance and body control if your midsection is strong enough to steady your movement. Improving strength in your abs will help you change directions. Your back won’t get sore after training. You can lift twice as many groceries. You may hit your first home run in baseball. And you can run faster and jump higher.The center of your body is the place where your power begins. Martial artists have known this for centuries. You focus your “chi” from a place two inches below your naval. If you are centered, you will increase your energy and power. A powerful midline provides a base so you may explode your reverse punch. Whether you punch or kick, all force is generated from your midsection. If your abs are weak, your power chain is broken. A strong middle, connects your upper and lower body. Sprinters must run with their arms pumping straight ahead. Unnecessary sideward motion detracts from forward momentum. A strong abdomen stabilizes motion for peak efficiency. Even when you are tapping in a putt, your abdominals must stabilize your torso.
Muscles in your abs are responsible for maintaining your posture. A strong midline prevents injury. You can move at a variety of angles and feel secure if your abs are trained. But depending on your activity, your center of gravity changes. For example, during a flying side kick, your center of gravity is outside of your body. A karate practitioner lowers his center of gravity by bending his knees to deliver a commanding punch. Therefore you should prepare your torso for flexion (leaning forward), extension (leaning backward), and rotation (turning sideways) by training your abs and obliques. There is no magic to developing your core. Instead, it requires disciplined daily training. An Ab©Roller is fine, but you can obtain the same results from crunches. Crunches train your rectus abdominus muscles (two thin strips of muscle that extend from your breastbone to the pelvis), and three layers of muscle that flank your abs. To perform a perfect crunch, begin each repetition as if you were in slow motion. Contract your rectus abdominus and exhale as you let your muscles pull your shoulder blades off the floor. Exhaling on each repetition will allow you to squeeze your abs without arching your back. If crunches are too difficult, raise yourself off the floor with your arms and perform a crunch on the down phase.
When you are attempting to train your abs, other, more powerful muscles called your hip flexors (iliopsoas) do most of the work. Even when you perform a crunch correctly, your rectus abdominus begins the movement but your hip flexors cannot help but become involved; especially if you attempt to perform crunches quickly. Raising slowly, and only coming up part way is your best method for working your rectus abdominus instead of your hip flexors.
If you anchor your feet, you work mostly hip flexors. With your feet anchored, your back may arch straining the quadratus laborum (lower back muscles). Don’t try twisting your elbow toward your knee at the top of your crunch. Instead, if you wish
Karate practitioners often complain of low back pain. Bend your index finger back until it feels uncomfortable. An xªray won’t show what is causing your pain. When you return your finger back to normal, it feels fine. Similarly, some karate postures make your back “unhappy.” When a random sampling of subjects were required to have their backs x©rayed, some showed abnormalities and others did not. Amazingly, some of the folks with spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis were pain free. Others, who complained of severe back pain showed no sign of deformity. Weak abdominals are not always to blame for low back pain. Usually tight hamstrings are the culprit. Fitness testing may help determine the origin of your pain. If you score high in the bent knee curl up test, but low on the sit and reach trunk flexion test, focus on improving your hamstring flexibility. Muscles can be short or overtight from disuse.
Poor fitness leads to poor posture. If you carry most of your weight in your abdomen, your back muscles must counterbalance. Some “masters” allow their chi to drop from their chest to their waist. The same is true concerning the relationship between your quadriceps and hamstrings. Your hamstrings should be at least 60 percent as strong as your quadriceps (thigh muscles). Tight hip flexors and hamstrings, combined with weak abdominals and upper back may be a prime cause for your suffering.
Drop your pen on the floor. Bend down to pick it up. You probably twisted in your chair and leaned over sideways from your waist. Unsupported forward flexion with a shearing diagonal force is unhealthy for the disks in your low back.
Your disks are collagen packets filled with water. You are taller in the morning because your disks are not compressed from hours of daily standing or sitting. When you wake up, sit on the potty, and proceed directly into your abdominal training, your inflated disks may protrude into your spinal nerve causing pain. Therefore, perform your crunches later in the day.
Does your back hurt when you walk? Walking loads and unloads your disks, like a massage. With most muscular problems, moving around helps to relieve pain. But more serious ailments could be aggravated while walking or moving. This may be due to a nerve impingement or herniated disk. In these cases, walking exacerbates pain because of nerve involvement. Pulsing and throbbing pain, or temperature disturbances may be a vascular issue.
Bend forward from your waist. At about 15 degrees of flexion your back muscles (erector spinae, quadratus laborum) eccentrically lengthen. When you bend to about 45 degrees your hips take over. Bend past 90 degrees and your back is supported by ligaments. Pain receptors called nociceptors are in these ligaments. Sit in your chair with your left leg on the floor and your right ankle crossed over your left knee in a figure 4 position. Slowly bring your chest toward your right knee. Did you feel pain? Try your other leg. Disc injuries, muscular imbalances, lack of flexibility in the gluteals and piriformis (muscle under your hip) can create sciatic nerve problems. Check with your doctor if you feel tingling or numbness radiating down your leg.
Other stretches may relieve your low back pain:
1. Lie on your back and bring your knees to your chest in a fetal position. This stretches your erector spinae and quadratus laborum.
2. Lift one knee to your chest and grab it with your arms. Let your other leg remain on the floor. Switch legs and repeat. This stretches your hip flexor muscles.
3. Lean sideways into a wall keeping your pelvis stable. Bend sideways not forward. This may help if you have a disk that protrudes sideways.
4. Sit in your chair and slowly twist sideways maintaining a neutral spine throughout. This may relieve pressure on your disks.
5. Lie on your stomach. Raise your right arm and your left leg. Raise your left arm and right leg. This “Superman” exercise strengthens your erector spinae and quadratus laborum in your back.
6. Roll over onto your hands and knees. Lift your upper back and stretch resembling a “mad cat”. Hold this stretch for 3 seconds.
7. Stand with your right hand against a wall. Grab the top of your left foot with your left hand. Bend your left knee until you feel a stretch in your left quadriceps. Switch legs and repeat. Martial Artists who watch the silver screen spend a lot of
time training their abdominal muscles. It is not beneficial to possess awesome abs at the expense of awesome low back pain. I have seen people do bizarre exercises in the gym in an attempt to gain awesome abs. One young man placed a twenty five pound weight on his face while he performed situps. His nose protruded through the hole in the middle of the plate so he could breathe. If your lower back hurts, begin with trunk stabilization movements. Lie on your back and lift your arm and opposite knee toward your chest while maintaining a neutral spine. Next perform pelvic tilts. To perform a pelvic tilt, place your palms over your abdomen and chest so that the pinky of one hand is above the thumb of the other. Those fingers do not touch each
other while you are in a relaxed position. When you posteriorly tilt your pelvis your pinky and thumb touch.
Performing hundreds of crunches a day may be harmful to your disks. Crunching forward forces the annulus of lower back disks into your spinal nerve causing pain. After you finish your abdominal workout, perform some hyperextensions to move your lower back disk material back into place. You would probably rather take a blow to your midsection than to your upper abs. Your abdominal wall is thinner toward your ribs near your solar plexus. That is one reason the upper part of your rectus abdominus fatigues quickly when you perform crunches. Your hip flexors do most of the work when you execute reverse crunches. It feels as if you are training your lower abdomen, but it is simply the close proximity of your hip flexors to your rectus abdominus. Consider it a case of referred soreness.
Test the balance of strength between your lower back and abdominal muscles by performing the following exercise. Lie on your back and keep your lower back flat while you extend your legs toward the ceiling. Slowly drop your legs while attempting to hold your lower back flat to the floor. If you can pull this off, your abdominals are strong enough to counter the pull from your hip flexors. When you develop powerful obliques (the abdominal muscles on the sides of your torso), you receive an added bonus of muscular love handles over your hips. Training obliques does not make your waist smaller. In fact if you overload your muscles, your waist may grow larger. When your abdominals contract they produce an innertube like
effect to stabilize your torso. When you flex your obliques you provide structural support to your spine as if filling an innertube. In karate classes your instructor may have discipled you to “pull your belly button to your spine” to protect your lower back. Ironically it is not your abdominals that hold your belly button in, it is your diaphragm. A preferred guideline is to maintain a neutral spine when performing your abdominals. A neutral spine is a slight arch in your low back. If you own a large buttocks you may be incapable of holding your lower back to the floor. If you have a heavy chest or thick legs, crunches and reverse crunches are difficult.
Low back pain may be caused by weakness in your abdominals or lower back muscles. It may be tightness in your hamstrings or hip flexors. Or you might have a structural problem such as scoliosis (S-curve), no curve, or bone degeneration. Screenings such as trunk flexibility tests, hamstring flexibility tests, and bent knee curl up tests can help to determine the problem. A leg length discrepancy may cause pain on one side of your back. Good posture while sitting and bad posture while standing could be an indication for leg length problems. Do’s and Don’ts for abdominal exercise:
1. Do contract your abdominal muscles.
2. Don’t hold your breath.
3. Don’t arch your back too much, keep a neutral spine.
4. Don’t pull on your neck.
5. Do use slow and controlled movements.
6. Don’t swing your legs.
7. Don’t continue repetitions if you lose your form.