We are going back to basics here with today’s post. Oftentimes at the gym we become so focused on “seeing” results that we pick exercise that cover the obvious choices (arms, legs, abs) and leave out some of the crucial, or CORE, elements of a good exercise regimen. We all like to see the buff arms, and watch our bench and leg press increase, but what ever happened to covering ALL of the muscles in a workout.
So let’s talk about our Core. Contrary to popular belief, the core does not soley refer to that washboard six-pack you and all the other gym go-ers are working towards. The core refers to any and all muscles surrounding the “trunk” of your body (that lovely piece of work below your neck and above your hips). In our body we have what are called agonist and antagonist muscles, which are in simplest terms muscles that oppose one another- by stretching one, you are flexing the other and vice versa. Our bodies are constructed in this give and take way in order to allow mobility in all directions and planes. You have the biceps/triceps, quadriceps/hamstrings, etc (for extensive list see: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/101882465/agonist-and-antagonist). Our core is no different. You have the erector spinae which work for spinal extension, and the rectus abdominis (abs) that relax to allow the spinal extension and contract to create spinal flexion.
Is this you?
Chances are if you have a desk job, like most of the work force, at some point or another you end up in this lovely position. For the ease of argument, let’s ignore ALL the other issues the diagram brings up and focus solely on the back and your poor, poor spine. At this position, all of your erector spinae (the long muscles that run down your spine) muscles are stretched (extended) to an extreme point. You are crouched over in a complete unnatural position, and yet somehow manage to freeze yourself here for 8 hours a day.
Now let’s say after sitting like this all day (your back muscles are all “stretched out”), you head to the gym to work out your chest. Now, not only is your back STRETCHED, but you have tightened your chest muscles and in so doing pulled your shoulders farther in and stretched the back even further. You’re on a time crunch so you skip the stretching, head home, eat dinner, fall asleep and repeat the process. Your body can withstand one or two days of this kind of tension, but eventually this becomes a chronic issue that manifests itself in one of the most commonly reported pain issues—low back pain.
Alright alright, stop with the lecture, you say. What can I DO? And by what you mean “what’s easy” and by do you mean “can be completed in five minutes or less.” Well, my friends, there is a fix, and it’s a simple one- strengthen that CORE. Since this is just a basic introduction into back and core, I’ll give you 3 good exercises (let’s be honest, remembering more than three would be a stretch- ha).
1. Superman- This is a back flexor (shortening that erector spinae), and GREAT for after a long day of sitting in that hunched over position. You lie flat on the floor arms extended (easier= arms folded behind your head), and then simply contract your lower back muscles to lift your shoulders and upper chest off the ground. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then release back down. Repeat 5-8 times).
Challenge step 1: Simultaneously lift the legs with the upper body.
Challenge Step 2: Lift both legs and arms simultaneously and then perform a kicking/swimming motion with your legs alternating with your arms (aim for 20 seconds, then 30 seconds, etc—try to accumulate 90 seconds).
2. Quadraped Arm/Leg Raise- This one strengthens the low back and can also hit the abdominals a little bit too at the more challenging levels. To setup, position your body like a table top, with a flat back resting on your hands and knees (hands beneath the shoulders and knees beneath your hips). Extend one leg out while lifting the opposite arm up until they are in alignment with your back (not higher), then return back down and switch sides.
Challenge Step– As you bring your arm and leg back down, try to crunch in and have your elbow touch the opposite knee. This adds a flexion component to the exercise and thus engages your abdominals.
3. Low back stretch– So if your back is feeling tight, more strengthening won’t help with immediate relief, but this stretch will. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grab one knee and pull it into your chest while extending the other leg. Hold for 10 seconds, then switch.
Challenge Step: Lying on your back with feet flat on the floor cross a leg over thigh of other leg. Grasp thigh of lower leg (uncrossed leg) and pull towards chest. Hold for 10 seconds then switch. (http://www.exrx.net/Stretches/GluteusMaximus/Lying.html) This will give you a deeper stretch that hits more in your glutes. Sometimes lower back pain is actual initiated in the glutes.
You can google search and find any of the exercises I’ve mentioned, but these are the ones I would highly recommend for low back pain, or just a sedentary/desk lifestyle. One last tip I’ll leave you with, a sort of gift from above for back pain, is the miracle cure of tennis balls. Yes friends, tennis balls and duct tape will change your life.
Observe: Grab two tennis balls and strap them together with some tape (duct, medical, etc), and VOILA. Instant back stretcher.
Place the tennis balls on the ground and lie down with your face up and keeping your knees bent. Position the tennis balls so that the middle taped part of their figure eight shape is directly on the spine and the tennis balls are on either side. Slowly use your legs to roll your back over the tennis balls all the way up to below your neck, to wherever is comfortable on your lower spine.
To wrap things up, as nice as it is to see the results of a gym workout (bigger arms, more “toned” legs, etc), never ever minimize the importance of your core exercises (and while I focused on the back as the “forgotten core”, remember abdominals need your attention too). Despite your backside being by definition behind you, out of eye sight and off your radar, believe me when I tell you that If you ignore it long enough, even though you may not see the problem, you will feel it.