I can distinctly remember my chipper and well-intended (although at times not seeming that way) physical therapist, Laura, leading our group of 5-8 every Wednesday evening. “Remember to come up one vertebra at a time, great job!” she would instruct and encourage us as we would inevitably, at some point during our Pilates workout, perform, or attempt to perform, a roll up. Some of my classmates would perform this exercise with somewhat relative ease. That was not the case for me. I could raise up to a certain point, the sticking point I seemed to encounter each week, and then “cheat” as I had to use other muscles to get past my sticking point. It was my weak core that was holding me back. The reality that my core was weak, was why I willingly tortured myself each week for several months. The rest of the each week’s Pilates class did get much better for me.
How could this be? Not many years ago my brother and I would religiously spend 2-3 hours at the gym, pushing each other through our brutal muscle-building routines. We performed plenty of weighted crunches, back extensions, and knee lifts. I’d had a decent “six pack.” How was my core so weak now?
This neglect of properly strengthening the muscles of the core that really mattered was the reason I landed in a physical therapy (PT) clinic. Earlier in the year I’d qualified and registered for the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, I would not be running it this time. Instead, I’d developed a painful and frustrating injury that would keep me from running for nine months.
I’d gone to another PT clinic, but opted for Laura’s torture, instead of the “quick fix” injections in my feet. I need to address the root cause of my injury and not just put a bandaid on the symptoms. So for months I would subject myself to two PT sessions with Laura (sometimes her co-torturer Wendy (another physical therapist) would gang up on me as well) to put me through a series of exercises to address my muscle weaknesses/imbalances and flexibility issues, using various setups and devices, including a Pilates reformer. Pure hell at times.
But over time it began to work and I was able to run again. Most importantly it made me aware that I needed to change my training to stay injury free and be successful in running. I am forever grateful to both Laura and Wendy.
Over the past few weeks I have provided recommendations for strengthening the glutes, outer hips, and muscles that support function of the ankle. Technically, these would all be considered core muscles. However, in this post I will focus on strengthening of muscles that many consider the “core,” specifically those muscles that support the pelvis, sacrum, and spine.
Muscles of the “Core”
We hear the term “core” a lot and we hear that it’s important to have a strong core. For our purposes in this post, I am going to discuss the “core” as being those muscles that support the pelvis, spine, and sacrum. Although most of us are familiar with muscles such as the rectus abdominus and erector spinae that get targeted when we use abdominal and lower back machines at the gym, these are more superficial muscles and the muscles that we want to primarily target are the deeper stabilizer muscles, such as the transverse abdominus and internal obliques. Our primary focus is not to have a nice “six pack”, such as if we focus on strengthening the rectus abdominus with crunches and abdominal weight machines. Instead, we want to focus on contracting the muscles that support our pelvis, sacrum and spine for longer periods of time with primarily our body weight.
What Exercises Should We Do?
So, what exercises will be most effective? Should we do a bunch of crunches or sit ups and back extensions? The answer is no. In fact, these exercises can be detrimental because they involve flexion of the spine.
Instead, here are some recommended exercises that should be performed at least three days per week, I typically perform these 5-6 days per week:
- Position yourself as you would for a standard pushup
- Raise to the top position and hold for 15-60 seconds, or until fatigue, while breathing normally
- To increase the difficulty of this exercise rest on your forearms, instead of your hands, and position your arms so that you can interlace your fingers
- While performing this exercise make sure not to round your lower back or allow it to sag
- Position yourself so that you are lying on one side of your body
- Now raise up by resting on the forearm of the side that you are lying on
- Keep the other arm next to the body and keep the legs and the rest of the body straight. While breathing normally hold in this position for 15-60 seconds, or until fatigue
- To increase the difficulty of this exercise extend the top arm so the fingers are pointing upward
- Repeat on the other side
- Position yourself so that you are supine (resting on your back) on the ground
- Now raise up on your forearm and elbows, keeping the rest of your body straight
- Try to keep your neck relaxed
- While breathing normally, hold this position for 10-40 seconds, or until fatigue
A variation of supine plank is the reverse table yoga pose. I interchange these exercises and you might consider doing the same.
- From the side plank position with your left arm extended overhead, rotate 90 degrees to the left, and drop your left hand to the floor underneath you
- Your two hands are now positioned palms down directly underneath your shoulders with the fingers pointing towards your feet, and your belly is open to the ceiling
- Bend your knees 90 degrees, and position your feet flat on the floor directly underneath your knees
- Draw your hips upward so that your body forms a straight line parallel to the floor from the knees to the shoulders
- Hold your head in the position that is most comfortable
- Concentrate on keeping your hips high as you hold this position
- Breathe normally and hold until the pose becomes too uncomfortable to maintain
- Position yourself so that you are on all fours (on hands and knees in table top position), with the hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips
- Keep the back straight
- Raise one arm and the opposite leg, extending the arm straight out in front and the leg straight out behind until both are parallel with the ground
- Keep the head and neck in neutral (normal) alignment
- Exhale while lifting arm and opposite leg, and pause briefly when the arm and leg are parallel with the ground
- Inhale while slowly lowering both to the ground
- Repeat with the opposite arm and leg
- Continue until you have performed 5-15 repetitions for each side
These exercises should be performed in addition to the previous exercises I recommended for the glutes and outer hips, as well as eccentric calf raises. Discontinue any exercises that cause pain.
Performing These Exercises Alone Is Not Enough
Just like I discussed with muscles of the glutes and outer hips, it’s important not only to strengthen them, but to properly engage them while we run and in our daily life. The exercises that I mentioned are great for building core strength initially. Once we have a good level of core strength it is then helpful to use our core strength for dynamic movement, such as activating the core when we perform an exercise like a walking lunge, or performing a walking lunge and then twisting to the side. While we are seated we should be conscious of engaging our core muscles to have better more active posture when we sit and not allow the core muscles to just slack off and be slumped in our chair. Also, it can be helpful (and initially challenging) to use a stability ball for a chair, instead of your regular desk chair.
Oh By The Way, How Do You Perform a Pilates Roll Up?
If you are interested in trying a Pilates Roll see below. This can be a good assessment of core strength that you can perform periodically. I still do this exercise on occasion.
How To Do a Roll Up
- Lie on your back on the floor with your legs straight. Let your belly drop down toward the floor and make sure your shoulders are relaxed and away from your ears.
- Take a few deep breaths as you check your alignment and tune into your body. When you are ready, leave your scapula anchored in your back and your ribs down as you bring your arms straight up over your head and back so that your fingertips are pointing to the wall behind you. This will be your beginning position. This first move is the Pilates arms over.
- Inhale: Leave your scapula down as you bring your arms up overhead. As your arms pass your ears, let the chin drop and the head and upper spine join the motion to curl up.
- Exhale: Continue in one smooth motion to curl your body in an “up and over” motion toward your toes. This is the “moment of truth” for many. Pull in your abs in and deepen the curve of your spine as you exhale. That’s what gets you up (not momentum).
- Reach for your toes keeping the head tucked, the abdominals deep, and the back rounded. Ideally, the legs are kept straight throughout this exercise with energy reaching out through the heels. However, a modification would be to allow the legs to bend, especially as you come up and reach toward the toes.
- Inhale: Bring the breath fully into your pelvis and back as you pull the lower abs in, reach your tailbone under, and begin to unfurl—vertebra by vertebra—down to the floor. The inhale initiates this motion until you are about half way down. Be sure to keep the legs on the floor and don’t let them fly up as you roll down. Check that your shoulders are relaxed and not creeping up.
- Exhale: Continue to set one vertebra after another down on the floor. Keep your upper body curve as you roll down slowly and with control. The arms are still outstretched and following the natural motion of the shoulders as you roll down. Once your shoulders come to the floor, the arms go with the head as you continue to roll down to the mat.
This exercise may seem similar to a sit up. However, one important difference is that the motion is slower and more controlled to avoid using momentum compared with a regular sit up. Also, I’m not recommending that you perform a bunch of roll ups. It’s good exercise to do on occasion to assess where you are at with your core strength.
Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help in any way.
Your friend and coach,