By Marianne Ryan PT, OCS
Clinical Director MRPT Physical Therapy
Think twice before you crunch!
For most of us, abdominal crunches are on life’s list of things we know we really should do, but are not really that much fun - like flossing our teeth or eating psyllium husks. Well, maybe what I am going to tell you will be good news – ABDOMINAL CRUNCHES CAN BE BAD FOR YOU!
The problem is not so much what these types of exercises are doing to your six-pack abdominal muscles, but the effect they are having on your pelvic floor. Your pelvic floor is shaped a little like a hammock. It is composed of a group of muscles whose job it is to support our abdominal contents, maintain bladder and bowel control and support healthy sexual function.
When you do a sit up, an abdominal crunch, or even a Pilates “hundreds” exercise, the pressure in your abdomen rises. Your pelvic floor should contract strongly and automatically to match the increasing pressure. If you have weakness in your pelvic floor, the increased pressure will hone in on that area, and can worsen the weakness and cause serious problems, including problems with bladder and bowel control, organ prolapse and pain in the pelvis and lower back.
Also, performing sit ups or the Pilates “hundreds” can cause your upper abdominals to become over trained and much stronger than your pelvic floor muscles; resulting in muscle imbalances. If this happens, each time you perform a sit up, the upper abdominal wall tightens and causes funnel pressure which presses down on the pelvic floor muscles.
Take a toothpaste tube; make sure it’s fairly full. Now make it do a crunch – go right ahead and bend it in half! Okay, now do it again with the lid off. Get the picture?
Now, some of us are more at risk of pelvic floor weakness than others. Some high risk groups include:
- Women who are pregnant or have ever had a baby
- Women who have had gynecological surgery, especially hysterectomy
- Women who are post-menopause, or going through menopause
- Men who have had prostate surgery
- Elite athletes (eg. marathon runners, gymnasts, dancers, athletes of high impact sports )
There are other risk factors causing pelvic floor weakness as well; (like chronic cough, being overweight, chronic back pain), which mean that abdominal crunches should really be off the exercise list for most of us. This doesn’t mean you get out of exercising your abdominal muscles altogether! In the next post you will learn a great way of working out your abdominal muscles while keeping your pelvic floor safe.