6 Week Programme: Week 4 - Core & Back
Updated: Aug 2
When planning an exercise routine for the core, lots of people focus on the superficial core muscles - rectus abdominis and external obliques. Having a strong core is not about the aesthetics, it’s about the control and support to engage in the activities you want to achieve without strain or injury. In fact having a defined ‘6 pack’ can lead to issues such as incontinence and constipation, problems with breathing and posture.
So where should our focus be placed? On the deep core muscles - which can vary depending on who you ask, we will focus on the below:
- Transverse Abdominis - a corset like muscle which supports the pelvis and spine, our deepest abdominal layer, it helps to hold our organs in
- Multifidus - muscles which line the spine, helping to keep it stable
- Diaphragm - primary muscle used in breathing
- Pelvic Floor - muscles that support the pelvic organs, spanning the bottom of the pelvis
All four muscles work together to support a stable lumbar spine. These muscles are highly intelligent; turning on when needed without conscious thought. The transverse abdominis for example is extremely important when you cough or sneeze, holding the organs in place. However, this intelligence can be lost if we lead very sedentary lives, leading to muscle atrophy, until the muscle is so weak it can no longer perform its action. An example of this occurring in the transverse abdominis is a hernia. One of the best ways to ensure the deep core muscles are working is to maintain a neutral S curve in the spine, by holding the body in its natural upright posture instead of allowing it to slouch down in a chair or sofa.
Most core exercises can be divided into either stabilisation – holding pelvis and spine steady, or articulation – moving through the joints along the spine. Plank is a pose we regularly practice by itself or part of a sun salutation, it’s a stabilisation activity and strongly works the transverse abdominis:
- Come down onto the mat
- Place wrists under shoulders, spread fingers
- Allow shoulder blades to spread away from spine and spread collarbones away from sternum
- Press front of thighs up towards the ceiling, tailbone towards the floor, lengthen towards the heels
- Neck long, gaze down towards the floor
Strength and flexibility in your spine is critical, we perform a wide range of movement every day so it is essential we look after our back. Twists are an excellent way to achieve both strength and flexibility. Twists can help lengthen the spine and decompress the discs – creating space between vertebrae and turning on muscles around the discs, which increases blood flow to the spinal area. This ultimately leads to oxygen reaching the spinal area which can help fight pain and act as an anti-inflammatory. Before beginning to twist, it’s important to remember to engage the stabilising muscles for the pose e.g. glutes in a lunge, and understand the aim is not to over twist - don’t force it. See below a demonstration of a great supine twist we often do at the end of class:
- Lie down on mat, with soles of feet on the ground, knees bent
- Arms come out to T shape or cactus arms
- Using your core strength slowly lower both knees to the right side, if the neck feels ok we can take gaze over the left shoulder
- Keep both shoulder blades on the mat and relax legs and feet
- Stay here for 5 deep breathes then engage core and bring legs back to centre
- Repeat on the opposite site
Controlled movement in the spine for example cat and cow pose can help move synovial fluid up and down the spine, helping to lubricate the joints.
Now let’s shift the focus from the spine to the back muscles. The largest muscle in the back is the latissimus dorsi (lats), which connect your upper arms to your lower back, it’s a large broad, flat sheet of muscle. Learning to loosen tight lats can help with range of motion when lifting arms above your head. We will do an exercise in class to test how tight your lats are. The erector spinae are a powerful group of muscles that extend on each side of the spinal column from the skull to the pelvic region, with the job to keep the spine upright. Poses such as bow pose can strengthen this muscle group and seated forward fold can lengthen. Tight muscles can lead to an overly curved lumbar spine, leading to a forward pelvic tilt, negatively impacting posture.
As we have learnt over the past couple of classes, back pain could be caused by a number of things, for example weak hamstrings, lack of arch in the foot or tight quads. So if we do have back pain it’s important to consider the whole body when looking for the cause.
Sources used to help create this blog:
Note: Please ensure you warm up before completing activities listed above; by engaging in these activities you do so at your own risk.