If You Do Nothing Else Strengthen Your Core Muscles!
- While standing shift your weight to one foot and lift the other so it is touching the floor lightly. If you can hold that position for 10-20 seconds try lifting that foot completely off the ground and see if you can balance for 10-20 seconds. Finally, see if you can do this with your eyes closed.
If you were successful doing all three, congratulations! You have some good basic core strength and probably do a good job carrying out your daily activities and preventing injury. If you had trouble with the first or second step I highly recommend adding some basic core strengthening exercise to your daily regiment to increase your quality of life.
I preach this regularly to my older clients. Strengthening your core will help you balance so that if you happen to slip you have the strength to catch yourself and not fall to the ground and break bones. For my other clients, I encourage core strengthening for good posture and ease doing daily activities and exercise.
The muscles considered the “core” are the ones on the torso that stabilize your body allowing your appendages to work properly. Most people know the stomach or rectus abdominis muscles fall in this category. But the back muscles or erector spinae work in conjunction with the stomach muscles and need equal attention. Also falling under this core umbrella are the transverse abdominis (lower abs), hip flexors (front hip), obliques (front side torso) and lower latissimus dorsi (back side torso). Some trainers include the butt and chest area in this group. No harm in strengthening all off these muscles for stronger stability.
Weak core muscles not only make you unstable but can contribute to poor posture, back and hip pain and fuller waist line. There’s nothing worse than lifting a small child or reaching for something in the back seat of the car and injuring yourself. If your belly hangs out that’s a lot of pressure on your lower back and over time can cause aches and pain.
Where do you start?
If you’re brand new to exercise, pain free and your doctor says you’re good to go, first warm-up with an 8-10 minute walk or other activity to increase your body temperature. Then do some basic crunches and bridges (feet on the floor, knees bent while lifting the butt) 10-20 repetitions three or more times a week. After a few weeks, you should notice a difference and will hopefully be encouraged to seek out some other exercises targeting these muscles. Since I instruct group exercise classes I always encourage new exercisers to try these classes so they can be guided through a safe and effective workout. Pilates and yoga are great core strengthening classes offered at most gyms.
Need to move beyond the basics?
If you’re already a regular runner, biker, swimmer or other full body warrior you can improve your performance by targeting the core muscles. After a few weeks in my core conditioning classes most people notice a significant improvement in these activities. You might already be doing crunches and lower back exercises. Now take notice of your form. Be sure you’re breathing correctly and contracting you transverse abdominis while you do sit-ups. Add push-ups and planks into your routine and be sure to contract your hips or tilt your pelvis slightly while in this position. Some twisting type exercises will target the obliques. Exercises that include balancing will train all your core muscles to work in conjunction. I like working with a medicine ball because there is a wide range of fun moves you can perform with this weighted toy.
Finally, if you suffer from chronic back pain, core conditioning might help you get out of bed easier.
A physical therapist can help identify the muscles you need to target which might include the deep abdominal stabilizers which if weak can cause the low back pain. Or the multifidus, small muscles under the spine, which might be unsupportive. In these cases you might need simple exercises to help train the muscles’ endurance strength and the neurological facilitation, so the brain does it automatically. Think, “better posture”.
Here are some basic core exercises recommended by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.
If your doctor says you can perform regular exercise activity, try 10-20 repetitions of the following exercises. Increase to perform 2-3 sets several times a week. Stay tuned next week when I tell you about a fun new core exercise fad on the water.
Bent Leg Lift:
Lying on your back with both knees in a bent position and both feet on the floor. Carefully lift one foot 1 to 2 inches off the floor. Hold this position for about five seconds, then return to the starting position and lift the opposite foot. Repeat this exercise in an alternating fashion with a neutral pelvis and transverse abdominal (TA) contraction during the entire process. Remember to continue breathing.
When the bent leg lift is mastered, progress to the leg slide. Starting in the same position as the bent leg lift, slowly slide one leg along the floor until your leg is fully extended. Return slowly to the starting position and repeat with the opposite leg.
Next, perform the leg slide with the leg approximately 1 to 2 inches off the floor. Pay close attention to form to avoid undue tension in the low back.
Single Leg Lift:
This time start with one leg bent and one leg fully extended. As always, perform the basic TA contraction first. Next, slowly lift and lower the straight leg approximately 6 to 8 inches off the floor while maintaining the isometric contraction. Perform this movement until fatigued, then repeat with the opposite leg.
Double Leg Raise:
When you have mastered the single leg lift, progress to a double leg raise. The exercise is performed as above with both legs moving at the same time. Sometimes this exercise can be done with the hands under the tailbone for support.
1. Bodybuilding.com Core Training: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/mielke12.htm
2. Sports Medicine The Best Core Exercises: http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/abdominalcorestrength1/a/NewCore.htm
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