The abdominal crunch, though ubiquitous, is actually quite detrimental to the spinal discs and nerves. Better to find an abdominal exercise which respects and protects the spine! Image courtesy Jonathan Borba on Unsplash.
Happy Holidays! The dawning of a new year is a time when many people make efforts to establish new habits, many of them body-related. With the desire to improve ourselves often comes a (sometimes unhealthy) heightened awareness of how our bodies and their shapes appear to others. This is particularly true of abdominal muscles. Photoshopped, unrealistic images of sculpted torsos plaster newsstand covers every January. Crunches are the most commonly recommended exercise for increasing ab strength, often with six-packs as the goal. But do six-packs actually indicate broad-spectrum ab strength? What is actually the best ab exercise — something protective of our backs rather than detrimental to our spinal health? How can we balance form with function?
The Gokhale Method describes two important sets of abdominal muscles that keep us healthy: the “rib anchor” and the “inner corset.” The rib anchor helps prevent the lower back from arching. The inner corset protects the back from a variety of compressive threats — weight-bearing, impact, and vibration, as well as any distortion in shape like arching, rounding, or twisting. The inner corset includes the rib anchor plus a more extensive set of deep abdominal and back muscles.
Well-designed ab exercises would:
tone the deeper layers of the abdominal wall that constitute the rib anchor and inner corset muscles, while de-emphasizing the shallower rectus abdominis (six-pack) muscle
put no unhealthy stress on your neck, spinal discs, or spinal nerves
take as little time out of your day as possible
Here, my daughter Monisha, a high-level athlete, demonstrates how rib anchor and inner corset activation can make all the difference in pull-up form.
Now for some specific measures to strengthen the rib anchor and inner corset muscles. Based on how much time they take out of your day, we will divide them into 3 tiers:
Tier 1: Everyday activities
These strengthening measures are fully integrated into your everyday activities. They don’t take any time at all out of your day. Your daily activities need to be vigorous enough that they would ordinarily stress your spine. However, by activating the rib anchor and/or the inner corset every time your spine would get stressed, you not only prevent damage — you get your ab exercise as well. Think about this approach like “on-the-job training.” The advantages are numerous:
You strengthen the various components of your “brace” or “inner corset” in exactly the proportion they need to be strong. No overdevelopment of the six-pack (this is common and tucks the pelvis); no neglecting the deeper abdominal and back muscles (this is also common and leaves the area weak and unprotected).
There’s no threat or damage to your spinal discs, nerves, or neck in this approach. Compare this with the threat and damage caused by crunches, which unfortunately remain the most popular ab workout in gym routines.
It takes no time! It takes no longer to lift well (with the inner corset engaged) than it takes to lift poorly. It takes no longer to twist well (with the inner corset engaged) than it takes to twist poorly. And it takes no longer to run well (with the inner corset engaged) than it takes to bounce around willy nilly and destroy your discs and nerves.
Tier 2: Modified activities
These ab strengthening measures are slightly contrived (but not awkward) ways of modifying everyday postures and ways of moving to get our ab exercise needs taken care of. This is the next best choice if your everyday activities don’t quite cover your exercise needs. As many of us sit behind computers for larger and larger fractions of the day, I’ve begun recommending engaging the inner corset 10% whenever a student can remember to do so. This is the extent to which these muscles would have been recruited in sitting were they primed by carrying weights as much as our hunter-gatherer ancestors clearly did.
Laptops and other computers are wonderful tools, but they also encourage us to be passive and increasingly sink into ourselves over the course of a work day. Inner corset and rib anchor activation, even 10%, can help us learn to “wake up” our deeper abdominal muscles. Image courtesy Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.
Tier 3: Supplemental exercises
Doing supplemental exercises and therapies to strengthen the abs. These take time. To be efficient, I recommend whole-body exercises, yoga poses, or dance sequences that enable you to do several exercises in parallel. Some of my faves are chair pose, samba, and TRX planks.
Samba is a fun, social, sensual way to actively engage and strengthen the inner corset. It’s never too soon to start getting ready for Carnaval! Original image courtesy PlidaoUrbenia on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.5.
Helping it stick
Do you find it difficult to fit posture work into your daily schedule, or struggle to form new habits? (This is part of being human!) I’m excited to announce our new Gokhale Exercise Challenge, a live-streamed, daily 15-minute exercise session I’ll be leading personally at 7:00am Pacific / 10:00am Eastern every morning from January 1, 2020 through January 21, 2020. This enrichment of our Online University content is free for all Online University members.
If you are an alum of our Foundations Course or Pop-up Course and haven’t yet enrolled in our Online University, join today by calling 1-888-557-6788 to receive a special discount on your annual membership between now and January 8, 2020.
Q. What if I miss a session or live in a completely different time zone — can I still participate?
A. Yes! If this time slot doesn’t suit you, you can watch each session at your convenience for up to 24 hours after the live session.
Q. I’m not in great shape. Is this accessible to me?
A. Absolutely! All Gokhale Method alumni at any level of fitness will benefit from these exercises.
I look forward to starting the New Year with you!