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, which includes all the muscles in your abdomen and your back.
There are many ways to target the core muscles during your exercise routine. Some of them can do a lot to strengthen and define the muscles in your abdomen, while adding stress and strain to the spine. The goal should be to build stability, endurance, and strength (in that order) in the core, while sparing the spine of excess wear and tear.
First, 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 herniation 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, lie on your back with your knees bent. Lightly tense your abdominal muscles as if someone was about tickle you or drop a light object onto 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. Remember that 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, five-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, five-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 – five 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 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 three to five reps. If this is too hard, leave your knees on the floor.
Side Plank – five 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 three to five times. If it is too hard, leave your knees on the floor.
Crunches – 10 reps, five-second holds. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise your shoulder blades off the ground and engage your core. Keep your neck in line with your upper back and shoulders. Hold for five seconds.
As always, feel free to send us a message with all your questions about spine health and fitness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck!