Hands up who thought your core was just the six pack muscles?
Surprise surprise, this is actually not true! Your core is made up of many layers of muscles which, when they're all working well, support your lower back. Two major contributors to lower back pain are lack of co-ordination of the muscles surrounding the spine, and poor core strength. It's frequently seen in those of us with chronic lower back issues, that the deeper muscular layers that support the spine are inhibited i.e. they switch off. And ladies who have delivered beautiful babies by c-section? Your abdominal muscles have been seriously compromised in the process, a necessary sacrifice, but you can be damn sure its wreaking havoc on your lower back and pelvis - ouch!
So, if the muscles aren't working particularly well at the moment, or if you're looking to protect your back by waking up your core then you've come to the right place!
Heres a little guide on how to find your abdominals (no google maps needed) and kick them into gear!
Image courtesy of https://kineticphysiotherapy.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/manage_abs5.jpg
Finding your abdominals
You cannot strengthen a muscle that your brain doesn't know how to switch on, so I'm going to explain how to activate the deeper muscles of the core.
Switching on your transversus abdominus: Lie on your back with your knees bent and place your fingertips about 1-2cm inwards (closer to the midline) from the two bony bits at the front of your pelvis. Now press deeply, so that you can feel the muscles trying to contract when you use them in a minute. Take a nice breath in, and then exhale like you're trying to fog up the lenses of our glasses to clean them - feel that hardening beneath your fingers? Thats your deep abdominal muscles working. To get a stronger contraction, do the same thing again but think of your muscles like a corset around your body, on the exhale (whilst fogging your glasses) you're going to draw in the muscles like you're tightening that corset. Now that you know which muscle it is you're supposed to be working, try to do this action again, holding the contraction whilst maintaining a normal breathing pattern.
Switching on your pelvic floor: This one isn't just for ladies, lads you have a pelvic floor too! Begin In the same starting position as the last exercise (on your back with knees bent). I want you to think about drawing everything in the saddle area together (like tightening the drawstring of a bag), and then pull everything upwards. These are the same muscles you use to stop peeing mid-stream. After a few practice runs, try to hold this contraction for 5 seconds, maintaining a normal breath.
Ok now its time to combine the two of these. You should find that these muscles work together and contract at the same time, but this may take a bit of thinking about in the beginning. Thats ok! It's all about training the mind-muscle connection. Once you're comfortable with how to switch on these muscles, it's time to strengthen them.
Image courtesy of http://www.movebend.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/pelvic-curl-1.jpg
How to strengthen the abdominals
Now you know how to switch the correct muscles on, you can begin doing loads of exercises to increase their endurance! From the position on your back with the knees bent, you can do the following exercise progressions:
1) Straighten out one leg slowly, sliding the heel along the floor whilst maintaining a contraction.. then slide it back up again and repeat on the other side. Your pelvis and abdominals should be staying nice and steady as you do this, focus on a slow and steady movement with a strong muscular contraction
2) Drop the knee of one leg out to the side whilst holding a contraction, maintain this contraction to bring the knee back in to the midline and repeat on the other side
3) Have your knees stacked over your hips and your lower legs parallel with the floor, so your legs are in a sort of table top position. Make sure that your lower back is flat against whatever surface you're on, so that as you perform the exercise there is no excessive arching or strain on the lower back. From this position, straighten out one leg and lower it down until the foot hovers above the floor, then bring it back to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. Again, the pelvis should be nice and level throughout this exercise, with no strain on the back or movement of the upper body
4) More advanced: laying down on your back, have your legs straight up in the air (feet stacked over hips). Make sure there's no arching of the lower back (back flattened against the floor, tucking pubic bone to naval). Switch on those deep abdominal muscles and lower one leg down (slowly!) so the foot is hovering just above the floor.. keeping the pelvis, lower back and upper body steady (dont forget to breathe), return to the start position and repeat on the other side. The lower the foot goes, the harder your abdominals are having to work, so if this is too much or its straining the lower back, lower the foot only to where you know you can still maintain a strong contraction.. or go back to the previous exercise
Good luck and enjoy! Any questions drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org. Struggling with lower back pain? Click here to book an appointment.
Thanks, Rebecca x