Enter just about any gym and you will see areas with cardio equipment, with weights and with mats. That last place, which is dedicated to stretching and abdominal work, usually has two or three people who are finishing their workout. They diligently do their crunches on the quest for the elusive “six-pack.”
Go through any grocery-store checkout and you'll see countless magazines with tips for developing rock-hard abdominals, or secrets to getting the flat belly you have always wanted. I don’t think I have ever had a client who has said, “I love my abs. Let’s focus on some other things.” The majority of people I work with want to know how to obtain a flat stomach.
Most people have heard about "The Core." The topic is discussed all over the gym, among trainers, in most fitness classes and among members comparing their core routine with someone else's. Sadly, although it is a hot topic, there are still many people who think those crunches they do at the end of their workout are the best way to strengthen their core.
While the abdominals are definitely a part of the core, they are only a small part. The core actually consists of many different muscles, from the hips to the shoulders, on the front and back of the body. These muscles stabilize the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle to create a solid base of support. The muscles make it possible to stand upright, to move efficiently and to distribute the stress of weight-bearing activities. A strong core will improve posture, enhance performance in athletics and all daily activities and reduce back pain.
If you think about what many people do throughout the course of their day (sit at a computer, slump on the couch watching TV, slouch in their car as they drive), you will realize that they spend a great deal of time with their spines flexed forward and shoulders rolled inward. While the crunch exercise is designed to strengthen the abdominal muscles, it flexes the spine forward, thus potentially aggravating an already terrible posture.
What we require our bodies to do when we are not slouched over is fairly demanding on our spines. Think of picking up a child and swinging him onto your hip. Think of working in your yard -- bending, twisting and lifting heavy items. Our whole core has to work together to protect the spine from injury during these aggressive movements.
I want to give you some specific exercises you can do to begin to strengthen the muscles surrounding your spine, and I encourage you to do these exercises at the beginning of your workout routine. This is when you will be able to give the maximum effort, with the minimum chance of injury. At the end of your workout, fatigue has set in and you run the risk of doing the exercises with poor form. It is also way too easy to skip these when you are tired and just want to finish your workout.
Please watch the attached video. In it, I will also demonstrate progressions for each exercise.
Plank: Begin facedown, with your weight resting on your forearms and toes. Your elbows should be directly under your shoulders and your body should form a straight line from your neck to your ankles. Hold this position for 60 seconds. If you feel pain in your lower back, modify this by dropping to your knees and forearms.
Side Plank: Lie on your right side with your legs straight and your left leg on top of your right. Your weight should be resting on your right forearm and the outside of edge of your right foot. Position your right elbow directly below your right shoulder. Make sure your body is a straight line from your head to your ankles. Hold this position for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Hip Bridge: Lie on your back with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor, arms resting at your sides. Engage your hamstrings and glutes and lift your hips, creating a bridge. Keep the glutes squeezed tight as you maintain this bridge for 60 seconds.
Push-Up Walkout: Start in a push-up position. Walk your hands out as far as you can without letting your lower back sag, then walk back in to the starting position. Continue doing this for 60 seconds.
Mountain Climbers: Start in a push-up position. Keep your abdominals tight and your body in a straight line. Raise your left foot and bring your left knee toward your chest. Return to start and repeat with your right leg. Focus on keeping the torso and shoulders in the same position and your spine stable, without rushing through the exercise.
Hopefully these exercises will get you well on your way to building a strong core that will keep your spine and the rest of your body safe. Now, sit up a little straighter, relax those shoulders down and back, pull your abdominals in, and breathe deep!