Strengthening Core

Ask the Expert

Q:

I want to strengthen my body's core muscles to help avoid possible back pain. I thought I should do ab crunches, but someone told me those are bad for the back. What do you suggest?


A:

Effective core training means strengthening ALL the muscles that surround your spine, including the deep core muscles that keep your spine straight and the muscles that let it move forward, backward and twist.

The traditional ab (short for abdominal) crunch only works a few of the core muscles. Overworking that area can cause muscle imbalance, leading to poor posture, back pain and even injury.

You need to strengthen the muscle groups that are most important for strengthening your core. These help stabilize your spine from deep within your body as well as support each small spinal bone, or vertebra.

To help keep your back healthy, add the exercises below to your warm-up routine. (If you currently have back pain, first consult your health care provider.)

Back Strengthener 1

  • Lie on the floor on your back, with knees bent, feet flat and hands on your abdomen.
  • Take a deep breath, filling your lungs.
  • Exhale, drawing in the abdomen without moving your spine or squeezing the muscles of your rear end. Keep your hands on your abdomen. Imagine that you are tightening a belt around your middle. It should feel as if your abdominal muscles are pulling away from your hands.
  • Work up to 10 inhale/exhale cycles. Relax your abs on the inhale until you build endurance and can hold them for the complete cycle.
    Back Strengthening Exercise

Back Strengthener 2

  • Position yourself on the floor on your hands and knees.
  • Take a deep breath, as in above exercise.
  • Exhale, while drawing in abdominal muscles, as in Back Strengthener 1 above.
  • Work up to 10 inhale/exhale cycles. Relax your abs on the inhale until you build endurance and can hold them for the complete cycle.
    Back Strengthening Exercise

Back Strengthener 3

  • Position yourself on the floor on your hands and knees.
  • Bend one elbow slightly, to lift one arm just off the floor. Do not let your spine or weight shift when the arm lifts.
  • Hold for 3 seconds, return to starting position.
  • Repeat on opposite side, holding for 3 seconds.
  • Gradually increase hold time until you can hold for 10 seconds on each side for a total of 3 sets on each side. Advance to the next exercise only when you can comfortably complete this one.
    Back Strengthening Exercise

Back Strengthener 4

  • Position yourself on the floor on your hands and knees.
  • Lift one leg. Do not let your weight shift or twist your spine.
  • Hold for 3 seconds, then repeat with opposite leg.
  • When you can hold for 10 seconds for 3 sets on each side, advance to lifting one arm and the opposite leg at the same time. This challenges all of your core muscles and balance. Hold each side for 3 seconds, working up to 10 seconds, 3 sets per side.
    Back Strengthening Exercise

With these exercises, quality of movement is more important than quantity. When performed correctly, these strengtheners will be challenging but not give the same "burn" you may be used to from other exercises.

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