By Amy McGorry
The abdominals are your “workaholic muscles” -- they’re constantly at work to stabilize your core and help you breathe (hopefully!). It’s difficult to rest these muscles, making abdominal strains a painful injury.
Four muscles make up the abdominals: the internal and external obliques that twist and side-bend your trunk, the rectus abdominis (aka “the six-pack abs muscle” that bends you forward) and the transverse abdominis, a deep muscle that stabilizes your back and helps you cough, sneeze and exhale. Strains usually involve the rectus abdominis and the obliques.
This type of injury is common in sports involving forceful bending or straightening of the spine, such as football, gymnastics and pitching in baseball. It also occurs with twisting motions in baseball, tennis and golf. You don’t have to catch that “Hail Mary” pass to suffer a strain, however: Lifting heavy objects at home can lead to abdominal tears, too.
When Abdominal Strains Are A Pain
When abdominal muscles are stretched beyond their normal range, a strain occurs. A forceful bending movement (like serving a tennis ball while channeling your inner Novak Djokovic) can also lead to a strain. Stretching incorrectly, pulling, lifting and jumping or running with poor form can also put an athlete at risk.
Athletes with abdominal strains often complain of stiffness, tenderness or “stabbing” pain along the abdominal muscles, especially when bending forward or backward. Small movements like laughing, coughing, sneezing and twisting can also be painful.
Any type of abdominal pain should be checked by a physician. Vital organs sit underneath these stomach muscles and when a tear occurs, the organs become vulnerable to injury. A hernia can occur when a portion of the intestine protrudes through the torn abdominal muscle. Surgery usually repairs this condition.
Strains are classified as mild pulls (grade 1), moderate discomfort with partially torn fibers (grade 2) or a complete tear of muscle fibers and loss of function (grade 3). Grade 3 strains usually require surgery.
When Abdominal Strains Sideline You
All athletes don't have Joe Manganiello-style abs, and this fact -- coupled with the abdominals’ key role with core stability -- leaves them at risk for injury. Tight or weak abdominal muscles can lead to strains.
Imagine a wide receiver hyperextending his trunk to catch a football for a touchdown. Muscle fibers in tight abdominals can’t glide well enough to handle the pull as he's reaching for the ball. He scores the touchdown (he better!), but can strain the abdominal muscles in the process. These muscles (which attach to the ribs and pelvis) now can’t stabilize the trunk efficiently and become painful. Getting out of bed in the morning, sitting up, lifting objects and even breathing can hurt because abs contract with the slightest movements -- even lifting your arm! Trying to rest these muscles is challenging, which delays healing and triggers further pain.
How To Stay In The Game
To decrease risk of injury, keep abdominals flexible and strong. Add these exercises to your workout routine:
- Holding a push-up formation, keep spine straight
- Don’t let hips and shoulders sink
- Hold 30 seconds and repeat
- Lie on side
- Lift hips, shoulders and knees while balancing on your bent elbow
- Hold 30 seconds and repeat
- Lie on your back with a ball between bent knees
- Squeeze the ball between your knees
- Keep your back flat and lift a light weight overhead with straight arms
- Do 2 sets of 15 repetitions
- Lie on stomach
- Arch back, propping up on extended arms
- Hold 30 seconds and repeat twice
- Lie on your back and bend your knees, keeping back flat
- Support the back of your head with your hands
- Curl up, lifting shoulder blades off the floor
- Slowly lower down
- Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions
Remember to check with a physician prior to any exercise program. You might be sidelined... but not for long!