By Dr. Jason Lemieux, Chiropractor, Physiomed Oakville
Core stability or core strength is a common buzz phrase in the fitness and exercise world. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most commonly misunderstood concepts. Most people believe that core = abs. Therefore, they believe that any exercise that strengthens our abdominals is a “core” exercise.
To truly understand what core stability is and to know what exercises are good for our core, we have to understand the concept a little better.
Core stability is the ability to stabilize the body statically and during movement. For example, the ideal movement in forward bending would use hip motion as the primary rotation center, with a stable spine.
Traditional abdominal exercises, such as sit-ups and crunches, certainly fatigue the abdominal muscles, and can strengthen them. However, these movements involve active spinal bending which has two unwanted and little-known side effects.
Firstly, the center of rotation becomes the spine, with the hips becoming the stable region. This creates a faulty movement pattern that can set up low back pain. It is also a very destructive movement for your posture. Picture someone halfway through the crunch motion. It’s a prime example of poor posture! The head protracts forward and the upper back and shoulders are significantly rounded. The problem with this is, as we become stronger with this movement, our body is able to reproduce the movement with greater ease. We get better at adopting bad posture.
Secondly, the active flexion of the low back has been shown to put significant stress on the discs of the lumbar spine and can lead to herniations. So an exercise that someone may perform to prevent or address low back pain, may in fact be the cause of further low back injury.
Better choices for core stability training involve teaching the body to statically stabilize in a neutral spine posture. To begin, you have to understand a basic function of the deep abdominal muscles, the transversus abdominis (TA). Rather than creating tension in your outer abdominals, the TA compresses your abdomen by drawing in and holding your pelvis and spine stable. You can practice contracting this muscle by laying on your stomach, placing one hand under your bellybutton, and drawing your abdomen in, off your hand, without holding your breath, or sucking in air.
A basic plank is a great exercise to strengthen the abdominals and maintain neutral spine. Start by kneeling down with your forearms flat on the floor. Setup is the most important part of this exercise. To find your neutral spine position, gently arch your lower back down, then flex your lower back up, finally bringing your spine halfway between the two movements. If you look in a mirror, your spine should be very straight or neutral. You must maintain this position as you step back onto the balls of your feet and hold for as long as you can, up to one or two minutes.
If you are able to maintain a neutral spine plank for over two minutes, then it’s time to start making the exercise more difficult. Try these variations:
1. Plank on one leg.
2. Plank on one arm.
3. Plank on one arm and the opposite leg.
4. Plank with the forearms on a stability ball.
5. Long lever plank with legs on a stability ball.
6. Plank with one forearm on a stability ball.
A qualified health professional can help ensure you’re ready to proceed and correct your form to avoid injury.
A few important points that are key to developing a strong core:
- The core must be trained in many different positions. We can’t lay on our backs for all our core exercises and magically expect that we will now be stable when we stand.
- Exercises must progress naturally in terms of difficulty. First, learn to successfully complete simpler exercises and then challenge yourself with exercise of greater difficulty.
- Core exercises (or any exercise for that matter) should reinforce proper biomechanically sound posture. If you have to choose between two variations of an exercise, take the one that imposes less postural stress.
For more core strength tips, book an appointment today.