Train your Core off the Floor
Many years ago as a newly trained Pilates instructor, I met a woman whose pelvic floor muscles had suffered following the birth of her second child. I asked whether she was doing Pilates to help and was surprised when she told me that no, her doctor had recommended that she takes up jogging. This is not the advice I’d been taught to give. In fact, high impact exercise was always considered to have a detrimental effect on a weak pelvic floor and it was necessary to strengthen the core muscles first before taking up such a sport. It worked for her though and I felt it deserved closer investigation.
Having been made aware of this concept, I noticed how clients with strong core muscles often failed to use them in everyday activities. I watched myself more closely when playing golf and realized that I was simply relying on the core to automatically fire up rather than deliberately recruiting these muscles that I worked so hard to strengthen. The traditional way of strengthening the abdominal muscles is supine, laying on your back on the floor and very effective this is too, but is it really functional? The whole point of strengthening the core is to protect the spine, avoid injury, improve posture and add power to everyday activities and sports. Since few sports and activities take place lying down, it makes sense to train the core in a variety of ways.
I also remembered a little trick I’d learned along the way to get people to understand how to engage the core muscles and it didn’t involve lying down. Try this: standing, raise one bent leg and push down onto the thigh with both hands on an exhalation, drawing up the pelvic floor and back with the belly and navel. You will notice a strong core contraction. As I learned more about anatomy and physiology during my health and fitness journey, I explored more functional exercises to strengthen the core.
Todd Wright, strength and conditioning coach for the University of Texas men’s basketball program, talks about the need to move loads. “There are three primary loaders, and the most important, in my mind, is the ground reaction“ says Wright. “Another loader is gravity and the third primary loader is momentum. Consider how you walk: Your arms swing, and that momentum creates a diagonal pull through your trunk.”
Over the past couple of decades, clients have been pouring into gyms to strengthen their core. Many were told to do this by their doctors/therapists to help with back pain and strong core muscles will definitely help, but on their own they are not enough and can even cause back problems by producing muscle imbalances. The majority of the exercises were performed in a supine position, too, more often than not, open chain (feet off the floor). Some core exercises are very static, too, for example, the Plank, often used as a challenge to see who can hold it the longest. Again, none of these are wrong and all will have a positive effect on the core. In fact, as a beginner, they are necessary to help understand core stability. The ground helps the practitioner become aware of unwanted movement and staying static reduces your chances of moving out of line. These floor exercises are a good introduction to the core, but there are more efficient ways to take you to the next level.
ALTERNATIVE CORE EXERCISES
So there is the need to work the core muscles in positions other than supine: they are more effective using three loads: ground reaction, gravity and momentum. The exercises I have chosen are compound exercises in that they use more muscle groups than just the core, but the core muscles need to be recruited in order to maintain stability of the spine and pelvis. Listen to your body, build up slowly.
Elbow to Knee
Start in a full push up position, draw up the pelvic floor and draw back the belly (engage the core) as you exhale. Inhale as you stretch a leg back, exhale as you squeeze the knee to the elbow, challenging the core to stabilize the spine and pelvis. Build to 10 reps each side, alternate for an easier version.
Fix your feet and start in a standard side plank, straight line from head to heel. Slowly lower the body towards the ground as you exhale engaging core, shoulder away from ear. Pause to inhale and as you exhale jackknife the hips to the sky and stretch your arm under the body. Inhale as you come back to side plank. Rpt up to 10 times.
Sit in a V shape, lengthening the spine and engaging the core as these muscles will be challenged right from the start. Hands rest lightly behind for balance. As you exhale raise bent legs. Inhale to prepare and as you exhale stretch the legs forward and up without moving the upper body or relying on your arms. Inhale as you bend. Rpt 10 times. If your back complains, stop immediately and practice just lifting feet.
I’m using blocks so that you can see the lift. Quite simply, sit with ankles crossed, engage the core and as you exhale lift your body, inhale to return gently to the ground. Rpt 10 times. For you yogis who struggle with the swing through, this is great training.
Yoga and Barre Pilates classes coming to Deal, Kent, in the New Year 2018