Are your core exercises helping you or hurting you? We’ve all heard how important core strength is for a healthy back, but most of us are doing them incorrectly, which can be harmful to the back. It all comes back to that five letter word with the silent “p”, the PSOAS muscle.

There are many types of core exercises including crunches, rotational crunches, leg lifts, and many more. All of these can create issues in the back and neck if not done correctly, but for today’s purposes we will be focusing on straight leg raising exercises. We perform “core” exercises in an attempt to strengthen the abdominals, improve trunk stability, and get a flattened, toned look to our abdominals.

Before we get into the impact that straight leg raises can have on the back we need to talk more about the psoas muscle. The psoas is deep in the abdomen and runs vertically just in front of the spine on both sides. As it runs through the pelvis it joins the iliacus muscle and then attaches on the inside of the femur bone. Why the psoas comes into play so frequently with the back is its attachments to the vertebrae from T12-L5 and each intervertebral disc. The primary action of the psoas muscle is to flex the hip or if the feet are planted to flex the trunk. When we perform straight leg raising exercises you are not only strengthening the psoas, but shortening it. When the psoas is shortened it creates a compression through our lumbar spine, jamming the joints and compressing the disc space which can lead to disc bulges.

Almost every client that enters our clinic has tight and shortened psoas muscles. Our day-to-day activities are very flexion based including bending, prolonged sitting, walking and running. All of these activities contract and shorten the psoas muscle and is why we, as therapists, find the psoas to be a contributing factor in clients with low back pain and so many other conditions. The psoas is also known as our “fight or flight muscles”. When our body or mind becomes stressed the psoas will contract and tighten in an automatic response to try and protect us. The problem is this response has developed into a subconscious holding pattern for many of us. Our psoas is now in a constant state of tension and overactive which can cause long-term effects on our spine and faulty, compensated movement patterns. In theory, when we move and perform activities our deep core should be firing first to keep our pelvis and back in neutral, stabilizing our spine. But, in reality, our psoas and other non-stabilizing muscles have become our primary movers, which creates dysfunction, compression, pulling on the spine, instability and ultimately pain.

Over the years of being a therapist, attending fitness classes, and going to the gym I haven’t seen many people that have the strength to maintain a neutral position through their lumbar and pelvic regions while doing straight leg raises. The weight of the legs along with the long lever created by the legs during a straight leg raise causes tremendous contractile force through the psoas. This is why you will notice your back popping up off of the floor during many core exercises. Many clients wonder why they feel “popping” in their back or pelvis with these exercises. This is instability, an imbalance and a sign to STOP and get guidance from a trained health care professional.

Each day our psoas is challenged with its normal activities and when we add straight leg raises the negative effect it can have on the back isn’t worth it. There are better ways to strengthen the core without risking back pain and dysfunction

Are you ready to find “core” exercises that can help you instead of hurting you? If you are ready to add healthy core work, set-up a session with Amy in the NBT clinic to discuss your concerns and she will instruct you in exercises that are right for you. If you struggle with back pain, but aren’t ready for core work you won’t want to miss our Relax The Back class in March. Amy will help you learn ways to relax, balance, and strengthen the back during this one hour class.