Pain Free New ways to strengthen your core

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By An­drew Wright

AS WE MOVE through life, our fit­ness reg­i­mens change. The dreaded mile run from gym class turned into an oc­ca­sional pickup hockey game in our 20s, which mor­phed into coach­ing pee­wee soc­cer in our 30s (walk­ing and shout­ing at kids is ex­er­cise, isn’t it?). Then mid­dle age came and continues and, well, many of us just got tired. And that’s a lame ex­cuse. Any­thing we can do to lim­ber up will only help as we grow older. But just how to be­gin?

The old standby for many is the tra­di­tional sit-up, that go-to for ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles. But stud­ies have shown it may not be your best fit­ness friend af­ter all.

Dr. Stu­art McGill, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of spine biome­chan­ics at the Univer­sity of Water­loo and au­thor of Back Me­chanic, who stud­ied the situp’s ef­fect on the spine, says choos­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate ex­er­cise comes down to its risks and re­wards.

In his ex­ten­sive study of the ex­er­cise, he de­ter­mined that the av­er­age per­son gen­er­ated more than 300 kilo­grams of com­pres­sive load on their flexed spine with a sit-up. That’s equal to the ex­po­sure limit for low-back com­pres­sion set by the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health. The com­bi­na­tion of the re­peated bend­ing mo­tion, to­gether with the com­pres­sive load from the mus­cle ac­tiv­ity, can lead to disc bulging and her­ni­a­tion.

That po­ten­tial for in­jury is greater for those per­form­ing the ex­er­cise with ex­treme rep­e­ti­tion. Such was the case for the Cana­dian Armed Forces, who – af­ter con­sult­ing with McGill and other ex­perts – dropped the sit-up from their fit­ness test­ing in favour of safer and more ef­fec­tive ex­er­cises that bet­ter sim­u­lated re­al­world tasks.

While the av­er­age Cana­dian doesn’t ex­er­cise with the same vigour as Canada’s mil­i­tary hope­fuls, the sit-up can ex­ac­er­bate pre-ex­ist­ing back pain caused by con­di­tions like arthri­tis. “When you keep bend­ing an arthritic spine, it be­comes sen­si­tized and painful,” McGill says.

As for the re­wards, peo­ple have tra­di­tion­ally be­lieved the sit-up tar­gets the ab­dom­i­nal wall, which ap­pears as the cov­eted six-pack when it’s strength­ened and lay­ers of fat are shed from the ab­domen. But it’s also a cru­cial part of our core mus­cu­la­ture, which serves a far more im­por­tant func­tion.

“Hav­ing a fit­ter core al­ways makes sure you have that re­silience in your spine to ex­e­cute when you need it – whether it’s ar­rest­ing a fall, get­ting out of the way of a car if you stepped off the curb, car­ry­ing your gro­ceries or your grand­child.”

Hing­ing up over the hips dur­ing a sit-up also strength­ens the hip flex­ors, mus­cles that help us get our foot out in front of us when we stum­ble.

For­tu­nately, McGill has iden­ti­fied a way to repli­cate these ben­e­fits while min­i­miz­ing the risk. Af­ter putting a va­ri­ety of core ex­er­cises through the same strin­gent

anal­y­sis as the sit-up, he iden­ti­fied the big three: a trio of core ex­er­cises that he says are “the very best in spar­ing the spine, en­sur­ing suf­fi­cient spine sta­bil­ity and cre­at­ing suf­fi­cient ath­leti­cism.”

“You’re not train­ing to be a Navy Seal any­more,” McGill says of switching from the situp to the big three. “You’re train­ing to be the most painfree and able-bod­ied per­son for the long­est pe­riod of time.”

THE BIG THREE

Each ex­er­cise is per­formed in rep­e­ti­tions of 10-sec­ond holds with 30 sec­onds of rest be­tween each set.

Try five rep­e­ti­tions for your first set, three for your sec­ond and one for your fi­nal set. When you feel like you’re ready for more of a chal­lenge, add one rep­e­ti­tion to each set with ev­ery ex­er­cise.

You can also in­crease the hold­ing times once you start to build en­durance, as long as you don’t ex­pe­ri­ence back pain. *Those who suf­fer from chronic back pain or have a pre-ex­ist­ing back con­di­tion should have ap­proval from their physi­cian be­fore per­form­ing the fol­low­ing ex­er­cises.

1 The Curl-Up

Tar­get: Ab­dom­i­nal Mus­cles a.k.a. Rec­tus Ab­do­mi­nis and the Obliques While ly­ing down face up, slide your hands un­der your lower back with your palms fac­ing down to sup­port the lum­bar spine. This po­si­tion main­tains the nat­u­ral curve of your spine dur­ing the ex­er­cise, min­i­miz­ing the stress on your back.

Keep­ing one leg ex­tended, bring the other into a bent po­si­tion so that your planted foot lines up with the knee of your ex­tended leg.

Be­fore you be­gin the hold, stiffen the ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles and el­e­vate your el­bows off the floor with your hands still un­der­neath your lower back. Keep­ing your torso and neck as im­mo­bile as pos­si­ble, raise your head and shoul­ders about one cen­time­tre off the floor and hold the po­si­tion for 10 sec­onds.

McGill says to imag­ine your head and shoul­ders rest­ing on a bath­room scale and that the lift is just enough to make the scale read zero.

To avoid neck pain, be sure to raise your shoul­ders, neck and head as a unit.

2 The Side Plank

Tar­get: Spine-Sta­bi­liz­ing Mus­cles, in­clud­ing Quadra­tus Lum­bo­rum, the Ab­dom­i­nal Wall and Latis­simus Dorsi For begin­ners, start by ly­ing on your side, sup­port­ing your­self with your fore­arm and with knees bent about 90 de­grees. Rest your up­per hand on the top of the thigh or hip. Raise your hips, keep­ing your body straight. Hold this po­si­tion for 10 sec­onds.

For a more chal­leng­ing ver­sion, straighten your legs, slide the top foot ahead of the bot­tom one and use only your fore­arm and feet as con­tact points.

This ex­er­cise can also be moved to the wall if you’re un­able to do the floor vari­a­tions – try lean­ing side­ways against a wall with the fore­arm per­pen­dic­u­lar to your straight body. The far­ther the feet are away from the wall, the tougher the ex­er­cise. Again, hold for 10 sec­onds.

Don’t for­get: do the ex­er­cises on both left and right sides!

3 The Bird Dog

Tar­get: The Back and Hip Ex­ten­sors Kneel down on all fours with your hands di­rectly un­der your shoul­ders and knees un­der your hips.

Stiffen your ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles and raise the op­po­site arm and leg si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The hold be­gins when both limbs are par­al­lel to the floor. Don’t raise the arm higher than the shoul­der or the leg higher than the hips.

To im­prove the ben­e­fits of the ex­er­cise, sweep the up­raised hand and knee along the floor in be­tween the holds.

Re­mem­ber to keep the spine locked. Only the shoul­ders and hip joints should move dur­ing the ex­er­cise.

Bonus: The Dead Bug

Tar­get: Hip Flex­ors Lie on your back. Place your left hand palm down un­der your lower back. Bend your right knee and keep the foot on the floor. Your right arm should be on the floor over your head.

Stiffen your ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles. Mov­ing only about the hip and shoul­der, raise your left leg and right arm up to about 45 de­grees, then lower them back to the floor.

Re­peat us­ing the five, three and one rep set pat­tern. Af­ter com­plet­ing your 10-sec­ond holds, al­ter­nate to the op­po­site arm and leg.

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