What comes to mind when you hear “core strength”? Crunches, planks, double leg lowering? 6 packs and 8 packs? Anything that works the abs? Well, if you have ever hurt your back, you may have noticed that a lot of the “traditional” ab exercises might actually make you worse. Lets extend beyond traditional thinking and what we can physically see with the naked eye. For a healthy back a person must have strong abdominal muscles AND a strong back.
We often think of and train what we can see, however there are deep layers of muscles in our trunk that are vital to the overall health of our backs. Different muscles do different things. Some act as position sensors (proprioceptive) and help with our balance as well as controlling the small movements along spine. Others stabilize the spine, working to prevent excessive movements, and then we have a our strong, sexy mover muscles (these are our 6 pack abs).
Sometimes, if we have had a previous back injury, those little proprioceptive and muscles don’t do there job as well, making us more susceptible to repetitive injuries/pain. Effectively strengthening the “core” requires exercises that address the deepest muscles outward. Think of a house. It may look nice from the outside, but if its foundation and framework are not built well, or poor materials were used, then eventually the house will begin to fall apart. This analogy isn’t just true for people that have had back injuries. Strengthening the deeper core muscles also enhances overall function and activity/sport performance.
When discussing central stability, think about the spine and the movement of the spine. Each vertebrae articulates with the next by way of its joints. Stability refers to enabling each joint to move freely through its available while staying properly aligned. Therefore, enhancing stability actually results in improving mobility and reducing risk of injury in movements that require extreme ranges (i.e gymnasts).
If you have ever been told you have a hyper mobile spine or something in your back has “subluxed”, it’s possible that the person who told you this was referring to a joint that wasn’t aligned. Think of your back like a door hing. Think of a car that has one wheel that is a little loose. Something just doesn’t feel right and with certain turns/movements you may notice a wobble, it doesn’t feel stable. While you can drive it, it isn’t performing optimally and might not do well with extra demands such as snow or ice. Over time, if you don’t address the occasional wobble, you may wear down one part of the tire and the wobbling gets worse until you have a flat and can’t drive the car at all. Your spine acts in a similar way to the wheel analogy. You need to address the wobble to reduce the risk of getting a flat, aka putting your back out.
Training the Core
Your core strengthening regime should be individualized to your needs, ability and goals. If you have an injury or pain in the back/buttock area, you should have it checked by a licensed professional and have a program designed that will specifically help with your injuries.
In general, a central stability training program should include some balance exercises such as standing on one foot or sitting on an exercise ball with the feet close together. It is also essential to train the deep stabilizing muscles. A basic transverse abdominis activation is the first step. Lying on your back with the knees bent, gently think of drawing the lower belly up and in without contracting the gluteal muscles (bum muscles) or pressing the back into the floor. The amount of effort to do this in comparison to a crunch is about 5-10%. Diane Lee, PT provides a great in-depth explanation of how to activate the deep stabilizing muscles. At the bottom of this post I have provided a link to her page. In addition, various types of bridging and planking also target the core stabilizing muscles.
Remember, this is about quality to quantity. Using the right technique and not experiencing pain are more important than doing a high number of reps. In fact, doing too many reps with the wrong technique, or an exercise that are beyond your current ability may result in over recruitment of the mover muscles. Avoid any exercises that cause back or neck pain and remember to have fun with it.
Classes and Resources
If you are looking to improve your central stability and live in the Halifax area, please join me Wednesdays at lunchtime at Station 12 Yoga for a playful Ball and Balance class. This class is suitable for those looking to reduce lower back pain and/or improve performance.
For more information on training deep stabilizing muscles, please click here to link to Diane Lee, PT info on deep stability training. She is a tremendous resource in this field.
If you have any questions about the information above, please visit my contact page and send me a message. Thanks for reading! ~ Sarah