CORE STRENGTHENING. The core is something more than the 6-pack you have been working feverishly on to get ready for beach season. It provides protection to the body during functional movements required by daily activities as well as high level sporting activities. Unlike most infomercials or popular opinion, the core is not just made up of those 6-pack muscles, or rectus abdominus in the medical world. The transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques, multifidi, and even hip musculature, including gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, iliopsoas and quadratus lumborum provide strength and stabilization to the spine and sacroiliac regions. Ignoring all of these additional core muscles by way of just strengthening the rectus abdominus could very well leave you at risk for low back or hip injury.
These core muscles are important as they are located at the center of the body where much of the physical demands and force of daily activity transfer from the legs up into the pelvis and then the sacrum and spine. The physical stresses that the world commands of our body while bending over to pick up a box or to throw a baseball occur in three planes of motion. They include the front and back or sagittal plane, the side to side or frontal plane, and the rotational or transverse plane. Doing the traditional crunch, for example, only works the core in the sagittal plane and ignores the other two planes. Therefore, a balanced core workout program should be designed to address the core muscles (mentioned above) which control the body in all three planes of motion. Weakness and dysfunction of these muscles can lead to abnormal movement of the spine, potentially causing low back or hip pain.
The following core program is just an example routine for symptom free individuals which addresses all three planes of motion. If you are currently experiencing pain or experience pain during the following routine, do not continue with this exercise program and we advise seeking medical opinion. Also, as with all other muscle groups, if you have not trained your core recently, you may experience delayed onset muscle soreness which can occur 24-72 hours after working out. This is a normal bodily response and you should hold off your next core workout until most of the soreness subsides. Included in the description of each exercise will be the names of the primary muscles targeted, the planes of motion the exercise trains, advice on setup and form, and a video demonstrating technique and providing instructions. Progressions may also be included in the description of each exercise.
Prior to and during every following exercise, it will be important to begin by “engaging your core.” Again, in addition to the rectus abdominus, the transverse abdominus (TA), internal obliques, and external obliques all make up your abdominal core muscles. To engage your core, you should tighten your abdominals without bearing down hard which can cause your back and hips to move. While engaging you core, you should be able to breathe normally, carry on a conversation, and not begin to turn red in the face. If you find yourself grunting or gasping for breath, you are bearing down too hard.
*Remember, engage your core before and during every exercise! Also, practice engaging your core throughout the day and during any low or high level activities you perform.
Muscles: Rectus abdominus, external/internal obliques, iliopsoas
Plane(s) of Motion: Sagittal (Transverse if you progress the exercise as indicated in the video)
To perform a plank, start from the position with both elbows and forearms directly below your shoulders and your knees on the ground straight behind you. When ready to start the exercise, take the weight of your lower body through your toes. At this point, only your forearms and toes will be contacting the ground. Maintain this position with a straight back and make sure your back remains flat and that it does not sag towards the ground. Hold the position for 30 seconds to a minute and perform 3 sets.
Easier: If the above description is too difficult, bear the weight of your legs through your knees.
Harder: As demonstrated in the video, maintain contact with only one foot on the ground, while holding the other straight up behind you
2) Side Plank
Muscles: Internal Obliques, External Obliques, Latissimus Dorsi, Gluteus Medius, Quadratus Lumborum
Plane of Motion: Frontal
To perform a side plank, lie on your right side with your right elbow directly below you and your forearm facing away from your body. The only part of your lower body touching the ground should be the side of your right foot. Lift up so only your elbow/forearm and right foot are touching and your right hip should not be sagging towards the floor. Hold the position for 20-30 seconds and perform 3 sets.
Easy: Like the plank, bear the weight of your legs through your knees.
Harder: Without your body rolling forward or backward, lift your top leg up off of your bottom leg with the side of the top foot leading towards the ceiling. You should feel the added work in the side your bottom hip and some in your top hip (increased work for the gluteus medius). Perform 10-15 repetitions.
3) Dead Bugs
Muscles: Rectus Abdominus, Internal Obliques, External Obliques, Multifidi
Planes of Motion: Sagittal and Transverse
To perform a dead bug, lie on your back, bend both knees up while keeping your feet on the ground, and straighten both arms out to point towards the ceiling. Begin by contracting your and then alternate kicking out each leg. When you get this rhythm, alternate the opposite arm and leg, a less stable movement. Continue for 1 minute and perform 3 sets.
Easier: If adding the arm movement is too tough, perform by just alternating the legs. You could also vary this exercise by beginning only with the arm movement.
Harder: Perform exercise by lying on an unstable surface, such as a foam roll. Add weight to each hand. Place your feet on an unstable surface, such as another foam roll or balance discs.
4) Bird Dog
Planes of Motion: Sagittal and Transverse
The starting position for the Bird Dog is on your hands and knees, with your arms straight and hands directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. As in the Dead Bug, begin by alternating kicking each leg out while maintaining core contraction. Also, do not let your back rock from side to side or sag towards the floor. Then begin alternating opposite arm movement with leg movement, again, as in the Dead Bug. Perform 3 sets of this exercise, 1 minute each.
5) Mountain Climbers
Muscles: Rectus abdominus, internal obliques, external obliques
Planes of motion: Sagittal, Transverse (with the knee to opposite arm variation)
The starting position for mountain climbers is the same as for the plank, except here your arms are straight, not bent on elbows. Begin by bringing one knee up towards the same side elbow (for example, left knee to left elbow). Then continue alternating for 10-15 repetitions on each side. A variation to this exercise to involve the obliques is to bring one knee towards the opposite arm, a more rotational motation.
6) V-Up Rotation
Muscles: Rectus abdominus, internal obliques, external obliques, iliopsoas
Planes of Motion: Sagittal, Transverse
For the V-up rotation, start from lying on your back and sit up into a position where your back is off the ground and your hips and knees are flexed with your feet off the ground. From this position, rotate both hands to one side of the body and then to the other. Perform this exercise for 30 seconds and for 3 sets.
Easier: Instead of performing with your feet off the ground, place both feet on the ground to give you some support.
Harder: Hold in a medicine ball of an appropriate weight in both hands.
Muscles: Gluteus Maximus, Hamstrings
Planes of Motion: Sagittal, Transverse (with Single Leg Bridge Variation)
To perform a bridge, lie on your back with both of your legs bent. Contract your core and push down through your heels to lift your hips up off the ground as high as you can so that your hips do not sag towards the ground. As you contract your glutes, bring your hips up slowly and bring them back down slowly. Perform 12-15 repetitions.
Harder: Perform a single leg bridge, with only one foot contacting the ground, with the other suspended in the air. If you are performing this incorrectly, your hips will sag towards the ground or rotate towards the opposite side of which leg is performing the bridge. Instead of performing this exercise for repetitions, attempt to hold the single leg bridge for 15-45 seconds.
Other tips for working out!
1) Work out with a friend! It will increase motivation and improve the chances of working out when the easier choice is sitting on the couch. It’s also more satisfying to share success and improvement with another.
2) Use a timer. You will be less apt to cut corners and end an exercise short.
3) Make it a cardio workout. Decrease rest breaks and cut out the gossip to increase and maintain a higher heart rate. Maintaining a higher heart rate for a longer period of time can help to burn more fat.
4) Work out your core multiple times per week. Set a schedule for yourself or for you and your workout partner.
The explanations, videos, and advice we have layed out for you are not a cure-all for your low back pain or an avenue to an injury free life. There are many sources for low back pain and injuries can occur to those with the strongest and most stable core. Again, if you have any concern about a potential injury or medical problem, seek professional medical opinion. We hope you have enjoyed this entry on core strengthening and, if you have, please send your friends, family, and co-workers over to check it out for themselves.
For Figure 1: http://skinnybulkup.com/abdominal-exercises-training-abs-core/ Accessed 3/12/12.
For Figure 2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multifidus_muscle Accessed 3/12/12.
For Figure 3: http://vo2maximum.blogspot.com/2011/01/help-memy-gluts-are-not-firing.html Accessed 3/14/12