Ow, My Multifidus: the dangers of overtraining the abs

Posted by on September 6, 2012

When most women think of “getting back in shape” after pregnancy, chances are they’re thinking about how to make the belly go flat again. And we all know what that’s about: the abs.

Or is it? The abdominal muscles are but one region in a system of musculature that includes the iliopsoas (hip flexors), the pelvic floor, and the lower back, dominated by a network of small but very strong muscle fibers called multifidi.

The multifidi conjoin the abdominal wall via the transverse abdominus, the so-called “corset muscle” that wraps around the torso. Many, many small muscles make up the multifidus group.

The multifidus group is responsible for stabilization, especially during times of need for balance and for support during asymmetrical exercises (think standing cable pulls of all kinds).

(By the way, I’m sprinkling these exercise videos that show you ways to strengthen the multifidi.)

It’s the muscle that gets most deformed when we sit poorly, and takes the most stress when we sit up straight. The multifidi need to be very active while squatting and deadlifting, and thus can constitute a major weak link in the posterior chain if they are not strengthened properly — and they usually aren’t — allowing major damage to the lumbar spine over time.

In short, the multifidi are some seriously abused muscles. And we just don’t appreciate them enough.

Let’s face it: who’s out there wishing they had sexier multifidi? Nobody.

Worse, during late pregnancy it’s pretty hard to work the multifidus strenuously enough to grow the muscle for support without also causing some wicked shear forces across that giant watermelon you’re carrying, making you susceptible to ligament tears and overstretched abdominal muscles.

So what happens when the abs get all the attention and the multifidi are neglected? Usually, it’s back pain.

Lower back pain: a symptom of underpowered multifidi?

This article now turns personal. For the past year and a half, since getting my belly flat after pregnancy, I’ve had really obnoxious pains in the lower back.

If I lay down on my belly for more than a few minutes, I would get significant sharp pain standing up again, to the point where I had to support my spine by putting my hands on my hips and pushing up. Yeah, that bad. Made me feel old.

The pain made it hard to pick up my baby from his crib. I’d have to “warm up” by twisting and bending and preparing myself by squeezing the TVA really hard (which was great training for keeping my head together while a baby was screaming), because I figured that the pain was due to not having a strong enough TVA. How wrong I was!

I saw a chiropractor for many months. He put my spine back in place which relieved a bit of pain, but didn’t solve the underlying issue. My mid-back didn’t emerge from the chiro’s office feeling any more “put together”, and when I asked about this, I got some vague comment about how my glutes aren’t firing correctly or something.

Well, my glutes are actually pretty fabulous. Weakness of glute is not my issue, and while I gave his theory the benefit of the doubt and went all-out on butt training for a few weeks, the problem never abated.

It got worse.

As I got back into rock climbing nearly a full year ago to this day, I thought that if I trained like a rock climber, I’d see my pain just fall away. Well, to make a long story short: NOPE. Rock climbers over-focus on the abs just as badly as everybody else, and while I didn’t know it at the time, my multifidi were just continuing to get weaker.

The Solution

What finally started to save me from more and more back pain every day — and the inability to read a book lying on my stomach — were two key realizations that came from doing a yoga class.

Cobra: UR DOIN IT WRONG

Cobra: UR DOIN IT WRONG

See, I thought that when you did a cobra move, you were holding yourself up with your arms. Years of yoga classes and misleading pictures of hyper-arched backs had confirmed this “truth” for me.

NOT SO! A rare correction from a really astute yoga teacher a few weeks ago showed me that cobra should be powered from the lower back!

In other words, in cobra, lift in the chest comes from the strength of the mid- and lower-back. Cobra is decidedly not just a really bendy push-up.

The following video shows you how to do a good cobra (and her accent is so cute):

So my two key realizations:

  • My abs are already very strong! I can “boat” with the best of them.
  • My lower back is f*&^@%ing WEAK! I couldn’t cobra my way out of a basket!!

Back to Teh Interwebs

Armed with new self-knowledge, it was time for more research. As soon as I started pumping “multifidus back pain” into Google, a flood of useful information suddenly came my way, after over a year of drought.

A book called The Multifidus Back Pain Solution popped up. I did the exercises from this book… and saw a lot less back pain. I still had a “baseline” level of back pain, though, so I knew that still more was needed.

A team of orthopedic physicians conducted a study(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21471653) to determine whether lower back pain would abate if the multifidus muscles were enlarged. Not just strengthened, but encouraged to hypertrophy (sometimes those are the same thing, but often not).

And guess what they found?!

this study suggests that an increased size and thickness of Lumbar Multifidus muscles after chiropractic adjustments is associated with significant decreases in low back pain.

Jebus! Why hadn’t a single chiropractor (and I’ve seen 3 now) suggested that I use heavy resistance training specifically for the multifidus muscles? What was with all of that “weak glute” garbage!?

A happy posterior ending

So now, I am not completely pain-free… but I no longer wake up and immediately feel I need to “wake up” my mid-back to avoid walking around in pain all day. I can lie on my stomach for at least 5 minutes, sometimes 10 (much improved from the 60 seconds of before), but best of all…

Hard-Core Multifidus Training

I have a plan. That plan involves doing exercises that encourage hypertrophy of the multifidus area. Stuff like this:

Or you can do something similar at home on an exercise ball:

Locust Pose would be the preferred exercise within the realm of yoga:

And if you’re just starting out, the Bird-Dog should always be your go-to — even during pregnancy:

That’s it! I hope this helps someone out there who’s been struggling with lower back pain and has tried just about everything.

Enlarging and strengthening the multifidus just may save you from your years of abdominal overtraining. Give it a try.

Bibliography

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  • Chuck Moulton

    Both on Amazon and in your blog entry, the thumbnail picture for “The Multifidus Back Pain Solution” is a completely different book (different title, different author). If you click to look inside the book on Amazon though there is a large image of the real cover.

    • nthmostfit

      Oh, that’s annoying. The image I’m getting here is generated by Amazon…

  • Pingback: Re-examining “good posture”: an anthropological perspective · Postpartum Punk

  • mmaciek

    Was encouraging hypertrophy of the multifidus area a good strategy?

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