We hear a lot of talk these days about “the core” being crucial to many aspects of health and fitness, including spine health. But what exactly is “the core”? I like to keep it simple: Think of the core as everything between your shoulders and hips. This includes all of the muscles in your abdomen and your back.
First of all STOP DOING SIT UPS. Sit ups focus on one group of muscles in the abdomen which don’t happen to be that important (in isolation) for spine health. In addition, sit ups create excessive force through the lumbar discs (the discs in your low back) which can produce disc bulges and herniations over time. Sit ups are a lose/lose exercise. What to do then?
Stability- first you want to build a fair amount of stability in the core before you start more aggressive exercises. To start, just lie on your back with your knees bent. Lightly tensen your abdominal muscles as if someone was about tickle you or drop a light object on to your stomach. Now breathe normally and maintain the tense abs. Make sure your abs don’t turn on and off as you inhale and exhale-you want to learn to control your abs independently of your diaphragm. Once you’ve mastered that, start to “march in place”. The trick here is to keep your back still while your legs move: this is what I mean by core stability. If this seems difficult at first, you are not alone. But don’t give up, everyone gets this after a little practice.
Now you are ready to move on to some endurance and strength building exercises. BUT-you must practice a stable core/spine throughout. So remember to keep your abs slightly tensed and move independently through the hips and shoulders while keeping the spine still. Start with these five basics:
Bridge -10 reps, 5 second holds. Lie on your back with both legs bent. Tighten your abs and squeeze your glutes. (If you like, you can put a pillow or a ball between your legs and squeeze it.) Lift your butt off the floor. Hold for five seconds.
Bird Dog -10 reps 5 second holds. On hands and knees with neutral spine, tense your abdominals and keep your low back quiet. Then reach way out with one hand, thumb up, and reach way back with the opposite foot, pushing through the heel, not the toes. Hold for five seconds with each reach. Activate all the muscles of the core, hip, and shoulder girdle.
Plank -5 reps, 10 second holds. Lie on your stomach, up on your elbows. Engage your glutes and abs. Depress your shoulders. Lift your butt and knees off of the floor. Keep your back and hips level. Gently tug your elbows toward your feet (no movement should take place). Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat for 3 to 5 reps. If this is too hard, leave your knees on the floor.
Side Plank -5 reps, 10 second holds. Lie on your side, up on one elbow. Engage your abs and glutes. Lift your hips and knees off the floor. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat 3-5 times. If it is too hard, leave your knees on the floor
Crunches -10 reps, 5 second holds. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your shoulder blades off of the ground and engage your core. Keep your neck in line with your upper back and shoulders. Hold for 5 seconds.
Once these become less challenging, try these progressions:
Side plank with scapular retraction- Hold the side plank position. With a straight arm, pull the shoulder blade down and towards the spine while pulling the band. Keep the body totally still. Do not rotate or twist in the torso. Do 10 to 12 reps
Plank with shoulder extension-In a push up position, extend the shoulder while keeping the arm straight. Keep your body still and do not twist in the torso. Do 10 to 12 reps
Bird dog on BOSU- Perform the bird dog exercise with knees on a BOSU ball and hand on a step. Hold for 5 seconds each for 10 reps
Crunch with leg raise-Perform the crunch exercise while simultaneously raising one leg and holding. Do 5 reps each leg for a total of 10.
One leg bridge-Perform the bridge exercise and extend one leg at the knee and hold for 5 seconds. Make sure to come up and go down in the normal bridge position and do not extend the leg until you have stopped moving.
Finally, you can integrate core exercises into most of your exercise routine. Try doing exercises standing instead of seated in various stances such as split stance. Also try doing exercises one arm at a time to promote more core recruitment. Examples:
Unilateral push in split stance
Unilateral row in split stance
Cable movements with a still body.