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Correcting Your Driving Posture to Reduce Lower Back Pain

People who suffer from lower back pain often find it aggravated by driving, or some people who drive a lot find themselves experiencing lower back pain.

Either way, there are a few things to be aware of regarding your posture in the car that will help both scenarios reduce their lower back pain and improve their driving experience.

  1.  You need to maintain your lumbar curve in your car seat.
poor driving posture, lower back pain, loss of lumbar lordosis
“Poor slouching driving posture. Loss of lumbar curve”by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016
Good driving posture, driving ergonomics, lower back pain
“Good driving posture. Lumbar lordosis maintained and supported by backrest” by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016
Vertebral Column by Unknown and is licenced in the Public Domain
Vertebral Column by Unknown and is licenced in the Public Domain

Your lumbar curve is there to help reduce the loading on your spine.  When you slouch, you increase the pressure on your spinal discs and increase your risk of developing a spinal disc problem that may result in lower back pain.  The backrest of your chair is specially shaped to help maintain your curve.  To gain the benefit of your backrest, ensure that your buttocks are positioned right back against the backrest and that you are leaning backwards into it.

2.  In order to sit properly while you drive and maintain your lumbar curve, you need to position your legs at the correct distance from the pedals to prevent tight hamstrings on stretch from flattening your lumbar curve (read my post on tight hamstrings and lower back pain).

Your hamstrings attach to the bottom of your pelvis and go on stretch when you straighten your knee.  If you have tight hamstrings, when you straighten your knees to reach/press down on your car pedals, the stretch in your hamstrings will result in your pelvis being rotated backwards and your lumbar curve flattening, increasing the pressure on your spinal discs and increasing your risk of developing lower back pain.

In order to determine the correct distance of your car seat to the pedals, place one hand in your lower back and feel the curve of your lower spine, then move your seat forwards and back until you can comfortably reach the pedals while still maintaining your lower/lumbar spinal curve.

Driving Ergonomics
“Optimum chair pedal distance” by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016

 

3.  Incline your car seat’s backrest to -8 degrees to reduce the loading on your lumbar spine and reduce spinal fatigue.

There is more loading on your spine when your backrest is upright than when it is reclined backwards.  You instinctively know this, and when you are tired from sitting upright for too long, you will intuitively move your buttocks forwards on the chair seat and lean backwards to take the strain off your spine.  Thus, positioning your car seat too upright will cause fatigue of your back and increase your risk of developing lower back pain if you are driving for long periods of time.

Too upright driving posture
“Driving posture too upright” by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016

4.  Elevate/lower your chair so that your hips are 90 degrees or less. If your hip angle is too sharp, this will also increase your risk of slouching in your chair, which in turn will lead to increase pressure on your spinal discs and increase your risk of developing lower back pain.  If your seat does not allow you to sit high enough, help yourself by sitting on a small cushion.

5.  Move the steering wheel up/down/forwards and back until you find a comfortable distance from yourself to the steering wheel.  Your elbows should be slightly bent.  This will prevent your shoulders from fatiguing, which when it occurs, will also increase your spinal loading and spinal fatigue when driving and increase your risk of developing lower back pain or aggravating your current pain.

Driving ergonomics
“Steering wheel positioned too far from driver” by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016

6.  Stretch your hamstrings (read my post on how to stretch your hamstrings if you have lower back pain) if they are tight to help yourself maintain good spinal posture when you drive.

 

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Is Your Computer Monitor Positioned Too Far Away from You?

Neck and lower back pain are such common complaints that we all know someone (if it’s not ourselves) who has experienced at least one of these complaints.  There are many causes for neck or lower back pain.  These can include different types of injuries, disease processes, genetic predispositions, and most importantly and commonly of all, our posture.  Our posture at work and our posture at home and at play.

Our work posture is getting more and more attention, especially since the advances in technology have relegated most of us to work behind a computer for long hours each day.  There are a host of things to consider in our work environment that can negatively affect our posture and cause our neck or lower back pain.

Part of my job is going around performing office ergonomics for people.  One of the most common things I hear is people blaming their chair for their neck or lower back pain.  Most often, however, this is not correct and the real culprit is the monitor and where it has been positioned on the desk.  Luckily, this is a much cheaper and easier solution to the problem.

Your poor monitor position (read my post on 4 poor monitor positions that cause neck pain) is definitely one of the first places to look if you suffer from neck or lower back pain and you think your work posture is to blame.  There are a number of factors to consider in relation to your monitor position, but one very important and neglected element is the correct monitor distance that your monitor is positioned away from you while you work.

If your monitor is positioned too far away from you, you will find yourself leaning forwards in order to see your screen better, creating all sorts of problems in your spine (especially in your neck and lower back) and over activating your shoulder muscles, all leading you down the path of aches and pains.

Monitor Positioned too far
Image by US Navy under Public Domain

 

So what is the correct distance that you should place your monitor?

Generally, your monitor should be positioned a lot closer to yourself than you think it should.  And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself why you keep leaning forwards when you work.

How do you determine the correct distance that you should position your monitor at?  I call it the “Frankenstein” test.

  • Firstly, position your chair as close to your desk as possible while your arms and wrists are still able to comfortably work on your keyboard and be supported with an elbow angle of 90-120 degrees.  (In order to get close enough to your desk, you might need to adjust your armrests.  Generally I find that most armrests get in the way of the desk when you want to come closer, so one solution is to raise your armrest so that it just slides onto the surface of your desk, allowing you to bring your chair closer.  If you are unlucky enough not to have adjustable armrests and your armrests are really stopping you from bringing your chair sufficiently forwards, I recommend getting your building maintenance to remove them.  Use your desk for your arm support instead).
  • Then, lean backwards against your backrest and replicate Frankenstein’s outstretched arms – where your fingertips end, that is where your screen should be.

Closer than you think?  Give it a try and remember to keep leaning back against your chair’s backrest.  Your backrest is there to help keep you in good posture while you work.  A combination of those two factors (leaning back in your chair and having your monitor at the correct distance away from you) will go a long way to reduce your neck or lower back pain associated with poor working posture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stress and Neck Pain

Who of you find that at the end of a day at work, your neck or shoulders are sore or aching?  Neck pain is so common, that between 30-50% of the population will suffer from it at some point, and office workers are even more at risk of developing neck pain.

Neck Pain
Image by J. Heuser under Licence CC BY 3.0

There are a number of reasons why neck pain is so common, particularly amongst office workers.  Let’s look at a few of the reasons why:

  1.  Poor computer ergonomics (Read this post about 4 monitor positions that can cause neck pain)

The way that you sit at your desk and use your technology has a large impact on your physical posture and can either relieve or create neck or lower back pain.  The posture that you sustain for extended periods of time will have a knock on effect on your muscles, joints, circulation of the blood, circulation of your nervous system and importantly, the ability of your lungs to expand and thus oxygenate your brain.  Are you enabling all these systems to work well or are you compromising them through your posture and creating neck or lower back pain?

2.  Not enough work breaks (Read this post about micro breaks in the work place)

When we work too long and too hard without breaking our work up into bite size chunks, we deplete our energy and our concentration levels and reduce our effectiveness, but, we also tire our bodies out more than we otherwise would that could lead us to developing neck or lower back pain.  In fact, research has shown that a lack of micro breaks throughout the day results in a higher risk of developing aches and pains.  Hmmm, who would’ve thought?  and it’s the one thing I’ve noticed about South Africans – we don’t pace ourselves.  This is really not good for our health.

3.  Not enough movement throughout your day (view our ergonomic desk exercise software that will help you correct your computer ergonomics and perform desk exercises throughout your day)

Ah, who feels like moving when they’re tired?  I must confess that I’ve had more than my fair share of couch potato moments.  Not only that, most of us hate breaking our work rhythm when we’re on a roll.  However, exercising regularly (on a daily basis or even once a day) is great for us in soooooo many ways.  Moving helps relieve tension that has built up in our tissues.  It also improves our circulation and helps protect us from aches and pains.  It is good for stress relief and for our general health/cardiovascular system.  Overall, if you are suffering from neck or lower back pain, exercise can help you reduce it.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed in my work is that even if someone has a really bad computer setup causing them to sit in an awful posture, if that person moves every hour, they invariably don’t get the aches and pains their colleagues who don’t move and sit in the same position do get.

Furthermore, moving throughout your day keeps your mind fresh and helps you perform better at your job.  Taking active micro breaks is definitely worth considering in your work day!

4.  And Stress!

Stress, stress, stress.  The silent killer.  The thing in our life that can take everything that’s good and run it down.

Researchers have discovered that working under time pressures and deadlines have a significant association with the development of neck pain.  They’ve also shown that if you are being managed by someone who has a poor leadership style, you’re also more likely to suffer from muscular aches and pains.  Eina!

And lastly, if you are experiencing psychosocial stress, you are also more likely than your peers to be experiencing neck and shoulder pain.

 

stress
“Stress” by Jean Pierre Gallot under Licence CC BY 2.0

So, how can you help yourself?

  1. You can correct your computer ergonomics (click here to view software that can help you correct your computer ergonomics yourself)
  2.  You can take more breaks and move more at your desk (click here to view software that can help you perform 30 second exercises at your desk)
  3.  You can find ways to deal with your stress (click here to find FREE resources to help you deal with your stress)

Dealing with stress is not easy.  It’s a process that requires learning new skills and looking at our life and situations in new and different ways.  If you are suffering from stress, you owe it to yourself to find ways to reduce its detrimental affect on your life.

 

References

Ariens G.A.M., Bongers P.M., Hoogendoorn W.E., Houtman I.L.D., van der Wal G., van Mechelen W. 2001. “High quantitative job demands and low coworker support as risk factors for neck pain.” Spine 26 (17): 1896-1903

Bongers P.M., Ijmker S., van den Heuvel S., Blatter B.M. 2006. “Epidemiology of work related neck and upper limb problems: Psychosocial and personal risk factors (Part I) and effective interventions from a bio behavioural perspetive (Part II).” Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 16: 279-302.

Gawke J.C., Gorgievski M.J., van der Linden D. 2012. “Office Work and Complaints of the Arms, Neck and Shoulders: The Role of Job Characteristics, Muscular Tension and Need for Recovery.” Journal of Occupational Health 54: 323–330.

Ferreira Jr M., Saldiva P.H.N. 2002. “computer-telephone interactive tasks: predictors of musculoskeletal disorders according to work analysis and workers’ perception.” Applied Ergonomics 33 (2): 147-153.

Fjell Y., Osterberg M., Alexanderson K., Karlqvist L., Bildt C. 2007. “Appraised leadership styles, psychosocial work factors, and musculoskeletal pain among public employees.” International Archive of Occupational and Environmental Health 81 (1): 19-30.

 

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Why Your Abs (‘6 Pack’) are Important. Part 2

Your rectus abdominus, commonly known as your ‘6 Pack’,  has another more interesting function than those discussed in Part 1 (read my post on why your abs are important, Part 1) of this series of articles on this muscle.

Considering that the most common exercise we perform to strengthen our ‘6 Pack’ is the sit up (read my post on sit ups and lower back pain), it’s not surprising that we think the main function of this muscle is to bend ourselves double.  Few of us are though are gymnasts, thus we don’t normally use this muscle for bending our trunks, unless we’re performing situps or pikes in the gym (and if you’re picking up objects in this manner, please stop, you’re going to injure your back – another topic I’ll post about in the future).  In other words, bending our trunks is not the every day way in which we use this muscle in our daily lives.

 

Pike, gymnastics, rectus abdominus function
“2015 European Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Uneven bars” by Pierre Yves Beaudoin under Licence CC BY 4.0

What then is the more important function of the rectus abdominus (‘6 Pack’) in our lives? To understand more, we need to have another look at how this muscle is built.

The ‘6 Pack’ is a long muscle that extends from the lower few ribs and inserts into the top of the pelvis.  Because we think of it as a long muscle, we think of its main function as bending us in half.  What we forget, however, is that the muscle is ‘tethered down’ by tendinous tissue giving us the ‘6 Pack’ distinctive look (when it’s not covered by blubber as mine currently is).

The important effect of these tendinous tethers along the length of the rectus abdominus is that, far more important than making your abdominal area look really ‘fit’, these tethers create stored spring like (elastic) energy in the abdominal area when you contract this muscle.

6 Pack, Abs, Rectus Abdominus
Image by Pixabay under Public Domain

 

Rectus Abdominus, 6 Pack, Abs, Abdominal Anatomy
“Abdominal Wall” by Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body under Public Domain

 

The stored elastic energy that is created when you contract your rectus abdominus is helpful in many ways during everyday life.  Firstly, it helps increase our intra-abdominal pressure, which is important in coughing, vomiting and emptying our bowel and bladder.  People who have been extremely unfortunate to suffer a spinal injury and no longer have function of their rectus abdominus (‘6 Pack’) can testify to how difficult it is to cough or forcefully exhale without this muscle’s function.  They often have to resort to external means such as leaning forwards or using their arms to press into their abdominal area to help replicate the function that our rectus abdominus normally performs for us.

It’s also important to understand that you don’t need to bend over to contract this muscle.  We are all able to contract our rectus abdominus while remaining upright.  This type of static contraction is called an isometric contraction.

In terms of sport and exercise though, this elastic energy also adds force and power to movements that occur at our hips or shoulders in activities such as throwing something (e.g. javelin throwing) or tennis serving or springing forwards as a sprinter and many many more examples.

 

Javlin throwing
“Bregje Crolla during Europacup 2007” by Erik van Leeuwen under GNU Free Documentation License.

The next question to ask then is, how am I training this muscle? Am I training it in a one dimensional capacity (e.g. performing sit ups or pikes), or am I training it in a functional way that will enhance my sporting performance.  Remember:  what you train, is what you get!

 

Reference:

McGill S. (2010).  Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention.  Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32 (3), 33-46.

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Touch Typing and Neck Pain

Which one are you?  The painstaking 2 finger typer or the smug finger flying touch typer?

Who would’ve thought that typing at school would come in so handy?  Or are you kicking yourself because as it turns out you never had the foresight to take typing as a subject when you had the chance?

 

finger typing
“An alphanumeric computer keyboard” by R. Jason Brunson, U.S. Navy under Public Domain

 

Touch Typing
“Computer keyboard” by Gflores under Public Domain

 

Does it really matter if you can touch type or not?  What are the implications for your health in the workplace?  How does something so seemingly insignificant make such a difference?

I’ve written a number of posts on computer posture (click here to read about how your monitor position can cause neck pain) and neck pain (Click here to read about correcting a monitor positioned too far or too low on your desk causing neck pain).   One thing I haven’t discussed is how touch typing (or not) can influence your neck pain.

As I mentioned previously, 30-50 % of people will suffer from neck pain and office workers are at a greater risk than others for developing neck pain.  One of the reasons that neck pain is so common in the office environment is that people bend their neck too much in an office job.  Research has shown that individuals who bend their neck for 70% or more during the day dramatically increase their risk of developing neck pain compared to their colleagues who don’t.

What are some of the reasons that cause people to bend their neck for too in an office environment?

  1. The computer/laptop/tablet monitor that you’re using is positioned too low on your desk while you work, forcing you to bend your neck.
  2. You are working with documents a lot and don’t have a document holder to hold them up at eye level, thus causing you to bend your neck while you work.
  3. You don’t know how to touch type and you are forced to keep looking at your hands when you use the keyboard, forcing you to bend your neck throughout the day while you work.

When I go around to companies and perform office ergonomics, helping people to sit correctly at their computer workstations, sometimes correcting someone’s computer ergonomics is not enough to resolve the problem.   If an employee constantly still develops neck pain despite having their computer workstation  setup correctly (click here to view software to help you correct your computer ergonomics) ,  and neck injuries such as whiplash, or arthritis, or any systemic diseases which may cause neck pain are not clouding the picture, the reason why they may still be developing neck pain is possibly due to the fact that they are 2 finger typers, constantly looking down at their keyboard.

What is the solution when an inability to touch type is the problem?  Simple, but it does require some effort.  Learn how to type properly.  There are a number of FREE online typing courses:

  1. Typing Study.com
  2. Typing Club
  3. Type Online

I’m sure there are more, just google it if you don’t like any of the one’s I’ve mentioned above.  If you do use any of the above, I would appreciate feedback to help with the recommendation to others.  Please post comments to this article.

Learning how to touch type will help you to keep working in a healthy body posture, reducing your need to bend your neck so often through the day and therefore reduce your risk of developing neck pain.  Another bonus to learning to touch type is that the increased fluidity and speed of your new found typing skills will also help you to work faster which may also help reduce some of the deadline stress associated with your job.  Stress in and of itself can also be a factor in your neck pain (read my post about stress and neck pain).  A double bonus.  Good luck and please let me know how it goes.

 

Reference:

Ariens G.A.M., B. P. (2001). Are neck flexionk, neck rotation, and sitting at work a risk for neck pain? Results of a prospective cohort study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 200-207.

Cagnie B., D. L. (2007, May). Individual and work related risk factors for neck pain among office workers: a cross sectional study. European Spine, 16(5), 679-686.

Guzman J., H. E.-J. (2008). A new conceptual model of neck pain linking onset, course and care: The bone and joint decade 2000-2010 task force on neck pain and its associated disorders. Spine, 33(4S), S14-S23.

Guzman J., H. S.-J. (2009, February). Clinical practice implications of the bone and joint decade 2000-2010 task force on neck pain and its associated disorders. Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics, 32(2S), S227-S243.

 

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How to Correct a Low Computer Monitor Position Causing Neck Pain

So,  you’ve discovered that your monitor (laptop, tablet or desktop computer screen) is positioned too low on your desk (read my post about 4 monitor positions that cause neck pain) causing you to bend your neck for too long, straining your neck.  How can you go about correcting this and ease up the strain on your neck causing your neck pain?

“Catching Up On Email…” by Ed Yourdon under Licence CC BY 2.0

Well, firstly, the changes to your monitor are entirely dependent on the type of technical device that you use.  There are, however, certain principles that apply to all types of devices with a monitor that you might use that you need to be aware of in order to adjust your monitor correctly and reduce your neck pain.

  1. You can’t use the same device’s keyboard, mouse (or touch pad) and monitor and sit in the correct position for your body.  It’s inevitable that this scenario will place you in a really poor posture when using your device, and if this posture is prolonged, it will likely result in you developing neck pain.
  2. Your monitor needs to be at eye level, allowing the curve in your neck to remain neutral (chin level, not tucked in or poking out).  Your cervical lordosis (neck curve inwards as in the xray below) is pivotal for good posture behind your device.
cervical curvature
“Medical X-Rays” by Nevit Dilmen under Licence CC BY 3.0

3.  You will need some assistive device (see what assistive devices we have in stock) to help raise your monitor to the correct height.  Some desktop monitors have a built-in system that allows you to move the monitor up or down as desired, but most do not.

Let’s consider each scenario separately:

If You Use a Desktop Monitor

If you are using a normal, old fashioned desktop monitor, this will be one of the easier scenarios to raise your screen to the correct height.  Just use books (it’s cheaper), a monitor raise or an adjustable monitor arm (check our our monitor raise and adjustable monitor arm in our shop).

 

Computer ergonomics
“Computer Workstation Variables” by Yamavu under Licence CC 1.0 (Public Domain)

If You Use a Laptop

People who use laptops sit in terrible postures unless they use a laptop raise (check out our laptop raise) or books to elevate the laptop monitor to eye level and use a second keyboard and mouse.  Please ensure that you purchase a proper laptop raise that elevates the monitor sufficiently and doesn’t do a half job and leave you bending forwards over your machine.

You absolutely cannot use the monitor and keyboard on your laptop at the same time unless you’re lying backwards on your couch or bed.

 

Good laptop raise setup
“Alu MacBook Desk shot” by David under Licence CC BY 2.0

If You Use a Tablet

Tablets are an even greater ergonomic risk than laptops.  Their screens are small and their keyboards laughable.  If you’re crazy enough to use it like a working computer, you will have to get a tablet stand (and more than likely need to raise even that up on books to get it to the right height) as well as a second keyboard and mouse (check out our tablet stand).

Tablet Raise
Image by Pixabay under Public Domain.

This tablet raise/stand allows you to use your tablet like a computer, however, it will still need to be raised further on books etc to get the screen to eye level.  In addition, you will also need a keyboard and mouse to allow for proper ergonomics and to avoid unnecessary back and neck pain.

 

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4 Computer Monitor Positions that Give You Neck Pain

Are you an office worker suffering with neck pain?  If so, you’re not alone.  Office workers are one of the population groups most at risk of developing neck pain, with an incidence of around 55% in some countries.

If you are an unfortunate office worker suffering from neck pain, is there something that you can do yourself to reduce or prevent your neck pain rather than popping pills or going to see your OMT trained Physiotherapist?

Neck Pain
Image by J. Heuser under Licence CC BY 3.0

The answer is, yes, of course there is!

The first and simplest things that you need to consider is where your monitor is positioned in relation to yourself on your desk (check our our desktop software designed to help you correct your computer ergonomics).  A poor monitor position is one of the most common reasons why office workers suffer from neck pain associated with poor posture.  It’s happily also one of the easiest things for to change to help improve poor posture that could be causing your neck pain.

Consider the following 4 monitor position scenarios.  Do you see yourself in any of them?  All of these poor monitor positions are high risk postures for creating neck pain.

  1.  In this scenario, your monitor (laptop or desktop computer screen) is positioned too low on your desk causing you to bend your neck for too long, straining your neck and resulting in neck pain.  This is quite common, especially for people working on a laptop or tablet.  Mobile computer devices are handy to have, but they all need assistive ergonomic devices (check out our shop to see our assistive devices in stock) to help you work in a safe posture.  Read this post on correcting a low monitor position to help you correct this problem.

 

"Catching Up On Email..." by Ed Yourdon under Licence CC BY 2.0
“Catching Up On Email…” by Ed Yourdon under Licence CC BY 2.0

2.  In this second scenario, your screen is positioned too high for you, causing you to raise your chin and compress the joints in the back of your neck causing you both neck pain and headaches.  This monitor position will cause neck pain faster than any of the others and is one of the worst postures possible for a computer worker.  This posture is common in people who are aware that a computer monitor often needs to be elevated, but are unaware of their own posture and what the correct position for one’s head and neck needs to be to prevent or reduce neck pain.  Correct your position asap (You can use our desktop software to help you correct your computer ergonomics).

 

Poor monitor position, poor ergonomics, neck pain, monitor positioned too high
“Starcraft II: Triple Monitors” by Kyle James under Licence CC BY 2.0

3.  Here, your screen is positioned too far away from you, causing you to lean forwards away from your backrest and poke your chin out.  This posture will cause both headaches and neck pain.  Read this post on correcting a monitor positioned too far away to help you correct this problem and reduce your neck pain.

Poking chin posture
“Man uses laptop” by Bill Branson under Public Domain

4.  In this last scenario, you are working a lot from notes/papers/files and don’t use a document holder.  This means that you are looking down too often during the day and this constant bending of your neck puts you at a very high risk of developing neck pain (check out our ergonomic software).

Alternatively, you’re working a lot from notes and have positioned them on your desk between your keyboard and monitor causing you to push your monitor too far away and take a poking chin posture.

Both of these postures will create neck pain and possibly headaches.

 

Monitor Positioned too far
Image by US Navy under Public Domain

I will write about how to correct these postures and position your monitor correctly in the near future, make sure you come back to find out how you can help yourself reduce your neck pain.

 

 

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Why Your Abs (‘6 Pack’) are Important? Part 1

I’m intrigued by the ‘6 Pack’.  Not the one that sits in the fridge, but rather the one that joins your rib cage to your pelvis.

From my experience, I have the impression that people focus on their ‘6 Pack’ quite a lot in the gym.  As a physio, I have some reservations regarding how much people focus on their rectus abdominus (abs) as well as some of the exercises people engage in to work this muscle, since some of these exercises can actually be detrimental to spinal health (read my post on sit ups and lower back pain).

However, the 6 pack is a part of our body and it is important.  The point is, how important?  What does do your abs do for you?  What happens if you over work your abs, or if your abs are weak or damaged?  In my blog I’m going to explore this muscle in more detail in future posts.

6 Pack, Abs, Rectus Abdominus
Image by Pixabay under Public Domain

Our starting point needs to be where your abs (‘6 Pack’/ Rectus Abdominus) are found in your body and what their basic function is.

Let’s start with where your abs are found.  If you look at the illustration below, you will see that the ‘6 Pack’ extends from the rib cage to the pelvis and is found in the front of the body, in the area commonly known as the ‘trunk’.

Rectus Abdominus, 6 Pack, Abs, Abdominal Anatomy
“Abdominal Wall” by Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body under Public Domain

What are the basic functions of your abs (‘6 Pack’) ?  What does it do for us?

1.  Your abs/ ‘6 Pack’ help to form the front boundary of your trunk, keeping your abdominal contents from falling out.  Quite an important job I would suggest – nobody wants stomach contents gurgling around their waist as they walk.

2.  In addition, when you contract your  abs/ ‘6 Pack’, the force of this muscle increases the internal pressure in your abdominal cavity (the area below your diaphragm and lungs and above your pelvis).  You use this increased pressure when you cough, laugh, empty your bladder and bowels, vomit (nice) and forcefully exhale.  All in all, important activities at specific times in our daily lives .

3.  We also use our abs/ ‘6 Pack’ to help us sit up from a reclined position, especially when our hands are not available to help us push up.  Mothers are very familiar with this particular function, especially when they’re getting up after lying down with a sleeping baby in their arms.

4.  Contracting your abs/ ‘6 pack’ also helps you to perform impressive gymnastic maneuvers such as the headstand ‘pike’ in this video.

Pike Headstand by Carl Paoli.  Used with written permission.  http://www.nakaathletics.com/

5.  Furthermore, on a superficial level, your abs are often used as a tool when looking for a mate.  Nothing shouts fit and healthy quite like lean, muscular abs.  Don’t believe me?  Take a walk along the beach, watch people in the gym, or watch the latest Calvin Klein ad.  That should assuage any doubt.

6.  Lastly, your abs/ ‘6 Pack’ is involved in your core muscle activation and its affect on producing/reducing lower back pain.  Since 80% of us humans are going to suffer from lower back pain in our lives, it might be worthwhile to understand how our stomach strength and exercises are helping or hindering us in this matter.  I will look at this more in a future post.  Want to read more?  Read my post on Why Your Abs are Important Part 2.

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How to Strengthen Your Abs When You Have Lower Back Pain

One of the worst things about lower back pain is that it stops you doing a lot of your normal activities, sports or exercises.  From experience, I’ve watched lower back pain reduce some very active people into couch potatoes due to their lower back pain preventing them from following their normal sporting routines.  These individuals often struggle to find other ways to keep fit until their lower back pain settles.

A definite exercise no-no for lower back pain is sit ups (read my post on sit ups and lower back pain), or some form of them.  Since core exercises are an integral part of any training program, many people must ask how they can exercise their abdominal muscles while they’re suffering from lower back pain and until their lower back pain settles?

Enter: The Plank.

The plank is one of my favourite exercises.  It’s easy to perform at home and it will give you a good overall work out.  The plank is a lot harder than it looks.

In addition to working your abs, the plank is also a very good exercise for protecting your shoulders against rotator cuff injuries.  It accomplishes this by working your shoulder stabilisers while simultaneously working your abs.  The plank has another added benefit of strengthening your spinal extensor muscles at the same time as well.  It’s an excellent overall core strengthening exercise and should routinely be a part of any training programme.

 

The Plank exercise, spinal strengthening exercise, abdominal strengthening exercise
Image by Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska) under Public Domain

When Performing the plank, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Position your feet hip width apart and keep your knees straight and off the floor.
  2. Keep your arms beneath your shoulders and your forearms parallel to each other if you want to work your shoulder stabilisers as well.  Ensure that your upper trapezius muscles stay relaxed (in other words, make sure that your shoulders stay away from the ears during your exercise).
  3. Most importantly, keep your spine straight.  That means that you mustn’t collapse in the lower back.  Your lower back shouldn’t hang like a hammock.  In order to keep your lower back straight, you will need to work your core muscles very hard.  In order to accomplish this, you will need to contract your stomach muscles in the area just below your belly button.  When they contract, they support your spine and prevent too much sagging from occurring in the lower back.
  4. The last part of creating a good plank posture is to ensure that you keep your neck in line with your body.  In order make sure that you’re doing this, don’t look up or down and keep your chin in the neutral position.
  5. Now, hold this position for as long as possible, but at a count that you can repeat at least 5 times.  A good first goal is to try start holding the plank for 15 seconds.  Slowly increase your count over time as you get stronger.
  6. Lastly, it’s important to remember to breathe.  Make sure you breathe in and out while you hold the plank.  It will make it a bit harder but you will be stronger in the long run.

 

Reference:

McGill S. (2010).  Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention.  Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32 (3), 33-46.

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How Overdoing Situps Can Cause Lower Back Pain

A ‘6-pack’ – the ultimate fit and healthy look!  One of the most common ways to go about getting your awesome abs is to perform loads of sit ups.  This must be one of the most common exercises performed in the gym, and judging by the photo below, in the armed forces as well (read my post on why your abs are important Part 1).

Image by the United States Navy and under Public Domain
Image by the United States Navy and under Public Domain

Most people are very careful about how they perform their sit ups to avoid straining their neck.  If your abdominal muscles are weak, it’s not uncommon to assist your sit up by using your momentum, which then leads you to pull on your neck which may end up with you experiencing some neck stiffness or even neck pain.  However, neck pain is not the only possible side effect from too many sit ups.  Have sit up enthusiasts considered that too many sit ups may also be placing them at risk of developing lower back pain?

How’s that you ask? Lower back pain?  Well, it’s like this:  Your body is a complex setup of biomechanical levers.  One of the most important levers is your spine.  Sit ups work the front part of your spine, pulling it forwards.  Counteracting this movement are the spinal extensor muscles.  Are you working them as well?  Are the forces acting on your spine balanced? (Read my post on how lower back pain works Part 1)

spinal lever
Image by CS Body Health cc. All Rights Reserved. 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do you know where your spinal extensor muscles are?  If you refer to the image below, you can see how long these muscles are and how far they extend along the length of the spine.  Are you performing any spinal extensor muscle exercises in the gym?  Do you know how?

"Longissimus muscle" modified by Uwe Gille under Public Domain
“Longissimus muscle” modified by Uwe Gille under Public Domain

If the muscles acting around your spine are unbalanced and your abs/ ‘6 pack’ is over worked in relation to the spinal extensor muscles, this may cause a constant slumping/slouching affect on your spine.  Too much bending of your spine will cause an increase in the compressive and shearing forces through your spine and especially on your spinal discs.  This may lead to premature wear and tear on these spinal discs (spinal cushions), which are in and of themselves weak in resisting bending and turning forces of the spine, too much of which may lead to lower back pain.  Some research puts the incidence of lower back pain due to injuries of the spinal disc at 65% of all incidence of lower back pain.

Furthermore, performing sit ups as a strengthening exercise for the abs/’6 Pack’ shows a lack of understanding for the real function of the rectus abdominus (click here to read more).  Sit ups are therefore not really functional and are also a high risk exercise for developing lower back pain.   What then would be a better exercise to strengthen your abs/ ‘6 Pack’/ Rectus abdominus functionally?  And would there be a way to simultaneously exercise the spinal extensor muscles and ensure balance of your spinal lever?  The answer is a resounding yes.  Read my post on using the plank as an exercise for more information.

Feel free to leave a question or comment.  I would love to hear from you.

 

Reference:

McGill S. (2010).  Core Training: Evidence Translating to Better Performance and Injury Prevention.  Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32 (3), 33-46.