“Core” is a loosely thrown around term that seems to be most commonly understood as the rectus abdominis (your “6-pack” ab muscle), and according to most of my patients’ doctors and trainers, the best way to strengthen your core is with some variety of sit-ups or crunches, leg lifts, and planks.
If this is how you’ve been trying to improve your back pain, with little or no success, you’ve been doing it wrong. Read on to learn why and what you should do instead!
First, we’ll start with the basics. What is the “core”?
The core is a group of muscles that surround, stabilize, and brace your spine. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll think of your core muscles as a cylinder with your spine (and other organs) inside – your pelvic floor muscles form the bottom of the cylinder, your diaphragm forms the top, and the sides include not only your 6-pack muscle and the obliques next to it, but also the deeper transverse abdominus muscle which is like a band around your waist and other very important small muscles that attach directly to the spine that are crucial for movement and stability.
Why is the core important?
Having strong core stability lowers your risk of injury by allowing your body to transfer force in any direction smoothly and efficiently. For the athlete, it also means you can transfer more power across your body, such as the power transfer from the feet to the fist of a boxer.
If your body isn’t able to control your spine (and body) effectively when you’re bending down to pick up that pen you dropped on the floor (or to get groceries out of your car) it means that one area or joint in your spine might not move as well or as coordinated as the rest, which is essentially instability, and can trigger a red flag to your brain that something is wrong. When the brain senses that a part of the spine is moving differently than instructed/intended, it will ‘lock’ the spine in place to protect it by causing a painful spasm in all the surrounding muscles.
So, how do you strengthen the core?
Exercises that challenge the body to transfer a load across the body or to hold a stable position against resistance are the best way to improve your core stability. Some of my personal favourite exercises are:
The Suitcase Carry
The Turkish Getup
The Pallof Press
The Bear Crawl
These exercises are a great way to improve your core strength and stability without stressing your low back, they keep your spine in its neutral healthy alignment instead of compressing the disks when flexing forward like you do with a sit-up, which could potentially aggravate your back injury.
Photo by Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net