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Can You Have Too Much Abdominal Strength?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 02 September 2021
Hits: 436

In my recent article about core strengthening exercises I compared the value of using isolation exercises versus integrated movements, I posed the question how much strength do your abdominal muscles really need? Based on scientific research by McGill the answer to this question was on average about 10% of maximal voluntary contraction. The ability to fire first and maintain endurance of the core muscles for long periods was of more importance than the overall strength of the abdominal muscles. When you consider how many people devote considerable time to improving their abdominal strength via planks, sit-ups, roll-outs, and various other exercises the question I now have is can you have too much strength? For most muscle groups more strength is a good thing, but is this the same for the core? For as we discussed in the previous article, these muscles are not designed to function the same way and as you will see shortly, sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

The rectus abdominis is responsible for flexing the lumbar spine, as when doing a crunch. The rib cage is brought up to where the pelvis is when the pelvis is fixed, or the pelvis can be brought towards the rib cage (posterior pelvic tilt) when the rib cage is fixed, such as in a leg-hip raise. The two can also be brought together simultaneously when neither is fixed in space.

This muscle attracts so much attention for its relationship to the “six-pack” seen on so many magazines and plastered all over social media as the ultimate body image. And the end result of this obsession with looking good, is to find as many exercises as possible that will strengthen these muscles to provide the definition that will make you look ripped. All common sense and logic about how these muscles function is thrown out the window in pursuit of anything that can strengthen and tighten the abs. And this obsessions can lead to a host of problems.

What Happens When You Do Too Many Crunches

When a muscle contracts it creates both force and stiffness. While stiffness is a good thing, too much can be a problem. If a muscle becomes more active it usually can add to spinal stability, but if it keeps working it will reduces motion and inevitably spinal stability by creating a buckling effect. This is very commonly seen with the rectus abdominis muscle producing a flexed trunk leading to disc bulges in the lumbar spine.

The rectus abdominis muscle can become a real problem if it is exposed to excessive and repetitive work as seen with abdominal crunches or sit-ups. As the abdominal musculature become progressively shorter and tight, the following postural aberrations may be seen:

  • Short and tight upper abdominal musculature
  • Depressed sternum
  • Forward head posture increasing chance of neck and shoulder injury not to mention poor breathing
  • Increased thoracic kyphosis and eventually the formation of a dowagers hump!

The picture below gives you an example of what you end up looking like if you excessively work the anterior abdominal muscles and do not maintain optimal posture and strength with the back extensors to counter the trunk flexion.

When you consider how many of people are stuck sitting all day in a position that looks exactly like a sit up, why would you want to go to the gym and punch out another hundred more sit-ups to tighten these muscles even more?

This makes no sense to me.

The spine is a strong, durable, and yet a flexible structure designed not only to transmit force, but also allow a variety of movements in all planes of motion. However, when the amount of these forces exceed the spine’s capability to withstand being squashed by various postures we repetitively adopt, or the dysfunctional way that we move, you will find pain is not far away. Two of the most common injuries I see from this are bulging discs and hip impingement (FAI).

Sustaining a slouching or forward bending of your spine leads to overstretching and weakness of the posterior fibrocartilage (or annulus) of the spinal discs. Over time, this leads to poor disc integrity and displacement of the disc nucleus fluid posteriorly. This places your spinal joints and nerves under pain-causing pressure. All you need to break you is repetitive exercises like crunches that encourage the trunk to flex even further.

In our article about spinal disc pressure from various postures we show that the spine is subjected to over 185kg of spinal pressure from sitting in a slouched posture. When you find abdominal muscles overworking and shortened from excessive work you will often find the antagonist muscles being the back extensors are weakened, and lengthened from being held in a stretched position for long periods of time.

What if you are not using crunches or sit-ups and only using planks, roll-outs, and side planks? Surely this will not shorten the rectus abdominis? Unfortunately, while you may not see any trunk flexion in these movements, you will find the rectus abdominis is working extremely hard as seen in the EMG results shown below.

This is also where “gripping problems” can begin to surface as people find a way to hold the plank for longer periods of time is to slightly tuck the pelvis under, squeeze the glutes, and hold the belly in. When this trunk gripping strategy is adopted they are weakening the inner unit muscles by over-activating the external obliques that help to create the posterior tilt of the pelvis. While this may give them the flat abs they were looking for, it will come at a huge price. For this compensation will now set in action a series of muscle imbalances and compromised stability of the hip joint that will eventually lead to hip pain.

With most common hip problems such as femoral acetabulum impingement (FAI) and Piriformis Syndrome, you will find weakness in the posterior muscles of the glutes and the beginning of what is referred to “anterior femoral glide syndrome". This is where the femoral head has moved excessively forward and is overly compressed in the acetabulum, creating the impingement feeling at the front of the hip and a reaction of trigger points in the glutes to try to restore the lost stability.

Take a look at the picture below where the image on the left (a) has the head of the femur right in the middle when you lift your leg. The picture on the right (b) shows how the head of the femur is unable to stay in the centre of the socket when you lift your leg and begins to move forward and eventually pinch the front of the hip. If this impingement is not corrected it will inevitably lead to osteoarthritis of the hip joint.

Most people will be told their core is weak which is why this problem is happening, when in fact it is the exact opposite. Their core is too tight. The correction for these people is usually a stack of glute and abdominal stretching and loosening combined with learning to bend correctly using the Romanian Deadlift to correctly position the femoral head back into the socket.

See article – Why the Romanian deadlift is the best exercise for hip and back pain

In addition to these problems you will begin to see flaring of the rib cage that will now result in a change of breathing. Over-activity of the outer unit muscles leads to weakening of the inner unit, and over time you will see stiffness and rigidity creep into the thoracic spine. Now neck pain is not far away! The faulty breathing is a real problem for it will disrupt any attempt at bracing the core during functional movement and all future abdominal exercises will exacerbate this.

While planks can provide great strength endurance of the abdominal muscles they can create big problems. I prefer to use the roll-outs or lower abdominal leg lifts over planks for they at least involve reflex stability and require movement of the limbs. They are closer to functional movements than the isometric holding of planks. I will prefer the kneeling side plank over the anterior plank for it will at least provide movement and incorporates the hips in the exercise. You can see more about breathing correctly and alternatives to the plank in the two videos below.

 

How to Keep Your Body Well Balanced

To avoid the trunk flexion and shortened rectus abdominis many people will adopt back extension exercises as part of their program in the belief it will counter the crunches, and while this is a good start, they make a massive fundamental error. They assume the strength in this movement transfers to all movements. Whenever we perform an isolated exercise we are employing a muscle action that is against the function of the nervous system and a pattern that we would never use. And when it comes to the core, where all the muscles are meant to work together to provide stability of the pelvis and spine when we move, isolated exercises disrupt the timing of this natural mechanism.

What needs to be implemented is a program that focuses on improving functional movement skills that demand complete activation of ALL the core muscles.

We showed this very clearly in the article that looked at EMG analysis of core muscles used in various exercises. When we compared the activation of the abdominal muscles in the integrated movements of squats, deadlifts, and Turkish get-up exercises versus the isolated abdominal exercises of planks, crunches, and roll-outs, the results were conclusive that integrated movement was superior. This is because they were able to provide a complete activation of the entire core, as opposed to one part.

The Turkish Get-up was the ONLY exercise to record over 100% peak activation with all four muscles tested!

Getting these exercises right takes a lot of work. You may need to work on your mobility of various joints and flexibility of muscles to do this. Some of the isolated abdominal exercises can be of some use to you if used in conjunction with the integrated movements. The timing, joint alignment, and ability to breathe correctly to brace the inner unit and outer unit is the real secret to core strength. Not the muscular strength of one muscle group.

For detailed descriptions of exercise techniques for all the fundamental integrated movements grab a copy of the free report below.

We know that strength is not as important as many people believe, but how much strength do you need?

How Much Strength Do You Need?

Not as much as you might think.

In McGill’s research they found that only a modest amount of strength was required to maintain sufficient stability of the lumbar spine. Their research established that to maintain a safe amount of stability in most daily tasks it was more important to have great muscle endurance, more than peak individual strength. Having strong abdominal muscles did not seem to provide the stability effect they were looking for, yet muscular endurance did. (Biering-Sorensen, O’sullivan, Twomey, and Allison 1997)

McGill found the amount of strength required was on average about 10% of maximal voluntary contraction depending on the task. However, there are several important factors that must happen in line with this if you want to achieve optimal stability. These are:

  1. The muscle/s ability to fire fast enough to provide stability, prior to the body moving.
  2. Co-contraction of the abdominals and extensors.
  3. The muscle/s ability to maintain strength for long periods.

What this tells you is that you do not need to expose the abdominal muscles with massive loads or activity that forces these muscles alone to work for long periods. This indicates that it is more useful to engage the abdominals in many functional positions that will force ALL of the muscles to work together as a collective team to provide stability of the pelvis and spine. The easiest way to do this is to spend time with functional movements.

The videos below provide you with some ideas of how this works.

 

This is compelling information for those who suffer with back pain and believe that they need to tighten up the core to protect their back. Ironically it could be the tight core that is the reason for the sore back. You can read more about this in the article – Why having a strong core does not prevent back pain

That covers abdominal exercise in relation to movement but what do you do about making them look good?

If You Want To See Your Abs EAT BETTER

I could save people a lot of time and a lot of pain by giving them the advice to eat better if they want to see their abs. So many people come to see me for help with hip and back problems caused by their own terribly designed training programs and methods that are loaded with ab exercises to make their abs look better at the beach. When I look into their nutrition and lifestyle habits I discover that this is the reason for the love handles and excess belly fat. Not a lack of abdominal muscle tone.

Anyone with even the slightest amount of knowledge about strength training will know you cannot spot-reduce. Yet, this mistake is being made daily as people attempt to flatten their abs with all types of crazy exercises and methods.

For the sake of this article taking up another 2000 words I won’t go into too much detail about diet and lifestyle changes you need to make. If you want to know more about losing belly fat read the articles below as they will provide you with everything you need to know.

Do You Need More Help?

There obviously is a lot more things to consider and if you are someone suffering with back pain, neck pain, or shoulder pain I would encourage you to get it diagnosed by a qualified health therapist. There is some great programs below you can you instantly download that provide you with all of our assessments and corrective exercises to restore your body back to good health. The heart health book has an entire chapter devoted to nutrition and lifestyle changes to help you lose belly fat.

Click the image below of the program you require. 

  

Summary

Once again I have covered a lot of ground with this article and I hope I have shown you a better way to train and improve your core function. We must move away from the outdated and dysfunctional way of training our core. The strength of these muscles is not as important as their ability to fire first and in correct timing with other muscles. Remember it is these three functions that are of most importance.

  1. The muscle/s ability to fire fast enough to provide stability, prior to the body moving.
  2. Co-contraction of the abdominals and extensors.
  3. The muscle/s ability to maintain strength for long periods.

If you use exercises that provide these three things you will ensure your core functions at its full potential and enable you to move with great efficiency and strength. While it is great to be strong, you can have too much of a good thing and in this case it can backfire on you. 

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

If you do need specific help with your exercise program please feel free to reach out to me for help and we can set you up with your individualised program.

 

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Functional Anatomy of the Pelvis and the Sacroiliac Joint - By John Gibbons
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle