Think of your core as the strength and balance center of your body. Weakness in this area is a common cause of low back pain and a tendency to fall. As in trees, the trunk needs to be strong and flexible at the same time. Our core includes all the muscles around the trunk and those connecting to the pelvis – the muscles that keep the spine straight, those that wrap around the abdomen (like a girdle), and those that include the buttocks, hip flexors and hamstrings. We’re not just talking about washboard abs.
There are very practical reasons to do exercises that strengthen your core. The stability it provides makes it easier to reach up, lift an object, avoid falls, lift yourself or a child off the floor, swing a golf club or play other sports with fewer injuries. Importantly, they are the best exercises, when done properly, to address low back pain and maintain good posture.
Before we address some basic exercises, let’s talk about how to engage your core. You can do this lying down. Start to inhale and imagine that you’re bringing your belly button toward your spine. Hold that position for a few seconds – no breath holding. You can do a pelvic tilt, from your natural position to feeling your low back flat on the floor, back and forth.
In the past, sit-ups or crunches were felt to be THE core exercise. They’re not in favor now because they involve pulling on the neck and are often done incorrectly, causing back strain with excessive tightening of the hip flexors.
Some basic core exercises to start with, not doing anything that feels uncomfortable, would be:
- Supine toe tap: lying on your back, feet flat on the floor, lift one leg up, then touch down, then the other. A more advanced version is to start with your shins parallel to the floor (or firm bed), tap right toes to the floor, return to start position, then tap left toes. Be aware of engaging the core during this. Repeat 10-15 times. See Jody Miller’s video on our site.
- Bird Dog: on your hands and knees, move only one limb at a time initially. Right arm straight out and return, left arm straight out and return, then right leg, left leg. If you can do that with a strong core, no low back strain, no sagging in the lower back, then you can try lifting your right arm and left leg at the same time; then the opposite combination. Repeat 10-15 times.
- Plank: facing the floor, start on your forearms and knees, feet up in the air, and hold. When this is easy, try advancing to your forearms and toes. Again, make sure there’s no discomfort or sagging in your low back area. Over time, see if you can build to holding for 60 seconds.
- Bridge: lying on your back, feet flat on the floor, gradually lift your pelvis, then your low, middle and upper back until there is a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Do not do this if it strains your lower back. Strengthen your core first. Smoothly, lower from your upper back down to the pelvis. Repeat 10-15 times.
- Here is Jody Miller, Exercise Physiologist, demonstrating a modified plank, standard plank and a bridge.
So, start by warming up, maybe by walking in place, moving your arms. Then try some of these exercises. Add on slowly. Unlike other resistance exercises, these could be done every day if you’re not sore. Alternatives can also be done in the pool. Think of how much core strength it takes to move your arms forward and back and stay upright. Or lift your knee toward your chest, keeping your trunk upright, and stay in place. You could try this on land as well – carefully!
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