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Core exercise should develop all of the muscles surrounding the spine, including but not limited to the abs, but back muscles too. In this article you will find the essentials for an effective core workout.

The Perils of Working Just One Core Muscle

Although the special effects of the black and white TV series "Lost in Space" seem primitive by modern standards, the science fiction story of the adventures of the Robinson family, stowaway Dr. Smith, and a robot, named Robot, were a staple of Thursday night viewing in the 1960's.

In almost every episode, Robot would sense imminent danger and warn young Will Robinson, played by a 10-year-old Billy Mumy, flailing his arms up and down, a light flashing on his chest, and repeating "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" Then there would be an advertisement followed by closing credits, the danger to be resolved in the next episode.

It's a good thing Robot did not have abdominal muscles. If he had, he might have developed a very painful, tired back.

Abs and Back Pain

In the 1990's, Australian exercise scientists recruited volunteers who had lower back pain to enter a study. The scientists asked the lower back sufferers to wave their arms up and down in the style of the Lost in Space robot to measure changes in abdominal muscles. They also recruited healthy people who did not have lower back pain for a control group.

Among the volunteers who did not have lower back pain, the scientists discovered that a muscle called the transversus abdominis tensed just a few milliseconds before the arms went up and down. In the volunteers who had lower back pain, the transversus abdominis did not flex before the arms.

In lower back pain sufferers, not only was the spine weak and wobbly, the abs did not hold it in place. Other muscles had to be activated to make lifting the arms possible, and even then, motion was slower and painful.

The Australian researchers concluded that teaching back pain patients how to do suck-in-the-gut exercises might just be what was needed to relieve lower back pain without medication. For some back patients, the exercises worked. For some back pain patients, they didn't.

Exercise trainers around the world, however, seized on the idea of developing the abs. Six-pack abs, in which the transversus abdominis is so powerful it holds down surrounding tissues like a belt tightened over the belly button became the mark of being in shape. But is having great abs really healthy?

Healthy People May Not Benefit from Six-Pack Abs

In 2010, an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine questioned whether healthy people really need to do abs exercises. People who have lower back pain, the scientists argued, may need to strengthen abdominal muscles, but people who do not have lower back pain may not need stronger muscles.

And in 2011, Dr. Stuart McGill, a highly regarded expert in the biomechanics of the spine and a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, began a one-person campaign against abs exercises that require hollowing out the stomach. All the core muscles, McGill says, are not abdominal.
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  • Unsgaard-Tøndel M, Lund Nilsen TI, Magnussen J, Vasseljen O. Is activation of transversus abdominis and obliquus internus abdominis associated with long-term changes in chronic low back pain? A prospective study with 1-year follow-up. Br J Sports Med. 2011 Jul 26. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Photo courtesy of Uberlinks on Flickr: by