Strengthen Your Core

Core Strength and Good Posture

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If you're following the trends in exercise and fitness, you've probably heard the phrase "core strength." Core strength refers to the muscles of your abs and back and their ability to support your spine and keep your body stable and balanced. Learn how to strengthen your core, reduce back pain and get strong abs.

Core Muscles

The major muscles of your core include:

  • Transverse Abdominis (TVA)-The deepest of the abdominal muscles, this lies under the obliques (muscles of your waist). It acts like a weight belt, wrapping around your spine for protection and stability.Target Exercise: Plank
  • External Obliques-These muscles are on the side and front of the abdomen, around your waist.Target Exercise: Arm Sweep
  • Internal Obliques-These muscles lie under the external obliques, running in the opposite direction.Target Exercise: Crossover Crunch
  • Rectus Abdominis-The Rectus Abdominis is a long muscle that extends along the front of the abdomen. This is the 'six-pack' part of the abs that becomes visible with reduced body fat. Target Exercise: Crunch
  • Erector Spinae -The erector spinae is actually a collection of three muscles along your neck to your lower back.

Be sure to target these muscles in your strength training workouts. While ab muscles can't be separated (they all work together in each exercise), there are exercises that favor certain portions of the abs, as listed above.

Core Strength and Back Pain

When the core muscles are weak or there's an imbalance (say you work your rectus abdominis with crunches but fail to strengthen your TVA), a common side effect is back pain.

Many of us experience lower back pain from:

Back pain is common because so many muscles have to contract and relax in order to allow you to stand and move. Tendons attach muscles to bones, ligaments hold your vertebrae together and muscles protect your spine and hold your body in place.

If all of these are healthy and strong, you're good to go. But, if you have weak muscles, poor posture and/or excess weight and your back will be one of the first places you feel the strain.

Dealing With Back Pain

First, see your doctor to rule out major injuries. If your doctor gives you the okay, you can get busy strengthening your torso. Your first step? Posture.

If you've ever worked with a trainer or used an exercise video, you've probably heard the phrase 'proper form.' Proper form usually refers to your posture as you're doing an exercise. There are certain things you can do all day and while lifting to reduce your chances of injury.

Proper Posture

When standing, proper posture involves aligning the body so that the pull of gravity is evenly distributed.

Good posture includes:

  • A straight line from your ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles
  • Head is centered
  • Shoulders, hips, and knees are of equal height

Some of the most common posture mistakes include:

  • forward head
  • rounded shoulders
  • arched lower back
  • excessive anterior pelvic tilt (protruding backside)
  • excessive posterior pelvic tilt (protruding abdomen/pelvis)

Test Your Posture

To figure out if you have good posture, take the following posture tests.

The Wall Test - Stand with the back of your head touching the wall and your heels six inches from the baseboard. With your backside touching the wall, stick your hand between your lower back and the wall, and then between your neck and the wall. If you can get within an inch or two at the low back and two inches at the neck, you are close to having excellent posture.

The Mirror Test - Stand facing a full-length mirror and check to see if:

  1. Your head is straight
  1. Your shoulders are level
  2. Your hips are level
  3. Your kneecaps face the front
  4. Your ankles are straight

Now look at yourself from the side (or have someone else check you out) and look for the following:

  1. Your head is straight rather than slumped forwards or backwards
  2. Chin is parallel to the floor
  3. Shoulders are in line with ears
  1. Knees are straight
  2. Slight forward curve to your lower back

What You Can Do for Better Posture

Once you determine your posture deviations, you can start working on them. Your first step is to be aware of your posture throughout the day; while standing, sitting at work, sitting in your car. Ask yourself if you're keeping everything in neutral alignment?

Depending on your problems, there are things you can do to help correct your posture. For example, if you have a forward head and rounded shoulders, you probably have tight chest muscles and loose upper back muscles. Try some corrective stretching for the chest area and tighten the upper back muscles with a reverse fly or back extension. If you have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, corrective stretching should be done for the hips and back and strengthening exercises should be done for the lower body and abdominals.

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