If you suffer from back pain and have received professional help, the chances are that you have been told that you need to strengthen your ‘core’. Studies into the causes of back pain have identified weak musculature of the low back and ‘core’ as a common factor in many cases of chronic back pain. So, what is this term ‘core stabiliy’ which is being bandied about and where is this elusive core?
The core muscles are located around the abdominal region, back, pelvic floor and hips. These muscles are responsible for balance, posture, trunk stability and are the foundation for movement. If they are weak, other muscles have to compensate, which is where poor posture and back pain come in.
Core stability isn’t about having a six-pack. Your six-pack muscle (the Rectus Abdominis) is a superficial muscle and, although it does form part of the core, we are more concerned with strengthening the smaller, deeper muscles for maximum stability.
So, now you know where the muscles are, we can work on identifying them in your own body in order to effectively strengthen them.
Below are 4 core strengthening exercises. During each exercise, you need to employ these muscles and maintain the contraction throughout. If you’ve done Pilates before, you may have heard this referred to as ‘zipping and hollowing’ or ‘pulling in’. Once you’ve mastered this technique, apply it to everyday life. Contract your core when lifting, running, even getting out of bed to keep your spine protected.
Here’s how to do it…
Lie face up on the floor with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Locate the top of your pelvis and walk your fingers diagonally down to the front by about 5cm. Keep your fingers there, now cough. As you cough you’ll feel a contraction in the muscles under your finger. This is your core ‘firing up’. This is the contraction you want to establish and maintain throughout the exercises so practice doing this by coughing again and trying to hold the contraction for at least 30 seconds. If you find you’re holding your breath, try counting out loud. It does take a bit of practice to get the hang of this but once you’ve got it you’ll have no problem holding the contraction whilst exercising (and breathing at the same time!).
So, to the exercises…
This will mobilise your spine and provide a good stretch down your back. Stand with your feet hip width apart and your knees slightly bent. With your core contracted, put your chin on your chest and slowly roll down through your spine. Keep your knees slightly bent. Think about articulating one vertebrae at a time, feeling the stretch down your back until you’re bent over with your neck relaxed and your arms hanging down, like a rag doll. Then roll back up, stacking one vertebrae on top of the other. Bring your head up at the very end to finish the exercise. Here’s a video demonstrating the roll down well (with very bad music!)
Leg Raises 1
Lie face up with knees bent and feet flat on the floor hip distance apart. Contract your core and raise one leg off the floor until the knee is above your hip-joint, keeping your knee bent. Be careful not to lose the natural curve of your spine. If your back starts to ache, chances are your back is arching and your pelvis is tilting away from you. Avoid this by holding the contraction thigh and tilting your pelvis towards you by pushing your spine toward the floor. Note I said pushing ‘towards’ the floor, not ‘into’ the floor. You don’t want to lose the natural curve by pushing the spine into the floor.
Leg Raises 2
In the same starting position as the previous exercise, contract your core and raise one leg then straighten it out in front of you, keeping a bend in the knee. Raise as high as you can without losing the natural curve in your spine, then, making sure you’re still holding in your core, press your low back into the floor and tilt your pelvis in towards you. This time you want to lose the curve. Hold, then return to your starting position and repeat the other side.
Front Support Hold
Often referred to as ‘the plank’ this is a great one for your core. On your front, with your core contracted, prop yourself up on your elbows and raise onto your toes so your entire body is off the floor (apart from your elbows and toes, obviously. If you learn how to do it otherwise, please let me know). You’re aiming for a ‘dish’ position, so rather than having your back dead straight, you want to tilt your pelvis forwards to achieve a slight upward curve, like a bridge. This takes pressure off your back and works the core harder.
If you can spare 5 minutes each day to do these 4 exercises, you’ll be giving yourself a good start to achieving core stability and reducing back pain.