Similar to other core exercises, rotational core moves like the Russian Twist and bicycle crunches are utilized to “trim the mid-section”, “burn that unwanted belly fat” and “strengthen the core for sports”. I have patients on a daily basis presenting to my office with lower back pain and disc related pain that are using these exercises in order to accomplish the aforementioned “benefits” to no avail. As I’ve stated time and time again, the role of the core is to STOP MOTION not create motion in order to accomplish 3 main objectives:
1. To keep the spine in a stable neutral position/lordosis to ensure the discs and joints are under no strain.
2. To ensure the nervous system (the spinal cord and peripheral nerves) is protected which will allow the brain to give the green light for maximum force exertion/muscle action (remember, when the spinal cord and nerves are even a little bit compressed by poor spinal position the brain will sound the alarm and not allow for as much force to be exerted through the muscles).
3. To create a stable platform for the strong mobilizing muscles like the glutes to move the ball and socket joints of the hips to create motion.
Again, motion for a range of simple activities such as walking and jogging to complex activities such as sprinting and jumping are created with a stable core holding the spine in a good neutral position while power is being generated with big muscle groups acting on the ball and socket joints. We know through research that “spot reduction” (reducing belling fat locally with core exercises) is a myth. We know movement based, rotational core work such as Russian Twists, bicycle crunches, side crunches and standing weighted side bends will work the core, slightly, but they put a tremendous amount of load on the discs and joints of the lower back causing injury. So why are online programs, sports and fitness instructors and coaches still having their unsuspecting clients/athletes doing such moves? I wish I knew the answer! What I can say without a doubt is you need to STOP DOING THESE MOVES in order to save your discs and joints from the repetitive trauma! In order to correctly work the rotational aspects of the core (the internal and external obliques) as well as the lateral stabilizers of spine (the quadratus lumborum/QL muscles) we need to perform ANTI-ROTATION core exercises and ANTI-LATERAL BENDING core exercises. Anti-rotation core exercises present an element of rotation to the spine and core structures in a way that attempts to cause rotation but isn’t allowed to create rotation due to the action of the of the obliques and QLs. Anti-lateral bending core exercises present an element of lateral bending (side bending) in a way that attempts to side bend the spine but is prevented from doing so by the obliques and QLs. Proper core moves, as a substitute to the rotational back breakers, such as side planks, suitcase carries and band walk outs are great alternatives that will:
1. Challenge the core in a safe manner.
2. Challenge the anti-rotational muscles to develop stability of the spine during rotational athletics.
3. Increase dynamic core strength in order to resist potentially detrimental rotational forces that may be encountered during activities of daily living.
4. And most importantly, not place the discs and joints under repetitive stresses that can result in joint breakdown and disc bulges.
So, next time you are in a fitness class at your local gym, you are doing a program that you found online or a celebrity fitness trainer has recommended or you see your child being subjected to rotational back breakers by his/her coach stop, substitute with safe anti-rotation and anti-lateral bending moves like side planks and variations of side planks, suitcase carries and band walk outs. You can even recommend my book Protect Your Back 101 to your fitness instructor or your child’s coach so they can learn how to train the core PROPERLY, stop hurting their client’s and athlete’s backs and most importantly PROTECT YOUR BACK!!