How Do Sit-ups Help My Spine?

fitness couple exercising sit up outside in grass in summerQuestion: I've been having some back pain, and my doctor told me I'm supposed to do abdominal strengthening exercises. Can you explain to me why it's so important to strengthen my abdominal muscles since it's my back that hurts? Shouldn't I be focusing on strengthening my back muscles?
—Akron, OH

Answer: I know, it does seem counterintuitive to strengthen another part of your body when it's your back that has had all the problems and pain. However, when you think about it, all your body parts are very interconnected. In a simplified way, it's just like kids sing in that song: "Your hip bone's connected to your backbone. Your backbone's connected to your shoulder bone…"

And that's just your bones. You have ligaments that connect bone to bone, and tendons that connect muscles to bones. All of these structures work together to help you move and to keep you balanced. If you want to strengthen one area of your body, like your back, you should also strengthen the related areas.

For your back, abdominal strengthening is as important, if not more important than, back strengthening because the abs a "front anchor" for your spine. They work as a counterbalance for your back muscles: that means that both muscle groups need to be strong in order to keep your spine properly supported.

If your abdominal muscles are weaker, then your back muscles will have to work harder to support your spine. This could lead to sprains or strains, and you know what that means: pain. Especially as you're trying to reduce your back pain, you want to do whatever you can to minimize your risk for developing more pain.

If you have weak abdominal muscles and weak back muscles, your spine most likely won't get the support it needs. Already, your low back carries a significant portion of your weight, so if your spine doesn't have the muscles helping out enough, that'll put increased stress on your back.

Strengthening, stretching, and stabilization are what I call my "three S's." They are the keys for keeping your spine healthy. You need to build up your muscle strength, keep your muscles flexible, and work on your core (that'd be your abs!) to help stabilize your spine. The three S's address the body as a whole and not as individual, separate sections.

Your physical therapy exercise program will include components of strengthening, stretching, and stabilization. You should follow your physical therapist's exercise plan exactly because it was developed for you, considering your abilities and goals.

I hope this helps you understand why you shouldn't skip the abdominal exercises as you deal with your back pain; they will truly help in the long-run!