lower back strength

3 Great Exercises for Core Strength

In my last blog post I talked about how to engage two muscle groups that are responsible for stabilising the lower back, pelvis and torso. The Transverse Abdominals (TA) and Multifidi can be tricky muscles to tune into as their engagement creates a more subtle sensation of stabilisation compared to the muscle burn we might be used to feeling in say a bicep curl or a squat!

Nevertheless these stabilising muscles play a very important role in maintaining good hip and lower back alignment and creating a seamless fluid transition between movements making us more efficient and less prone to injury in daily activities and sport. These muscles are also particularly useful to look at when it comes to rehabilitation after a period of lower back pain.

So now that you are a bit more familiar with the actions of these muscles and how to enagage them in simple postures (if you need a recap click here) let’s take a look at three of my favourite core stabilisation exercises that I use regularly with my clients:

 

Supine opposite arm to leg extensions

Start by lying on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor hipwidth apart and parallel in constructive rest pose. Bring your fingertips to the skin just to the inside of your frontal hip points. To engage the deep lower abdominal muscles, imagine you’re trying to narrow the hip-points and at the same time zipper the skin of the lower belly in and up towards the naval. The skin under your fingertips should tighten and draw down slightly as the lower back stays in a neutral position.

You will feel your breathe move more into your chest as the belly remains still.  Breathing naturally and maintaining the awareness of the lower belly bracing on your next inhale extend opposite arm to leg out along the floor. As you exhale return to the starting position, arms by your sides, knees bent. Then inhale to switch sides. Continue to go side to side with the breath for about 1 minute.

As you do this movement avoid letting the hips rock or the lower back overarch or flatten. The arms and legs are moving but the torso, lower back and pelvis remain still throughout.

To make this movement more challenging, you can explore hovering the heel away from the floor.

Supine opposite arm to leg extension pose

 

Toe Taps

For toe taps start by lying on your back, bringing your knees up over your hips, shins parallel to the floor and the feet flexed, as if you were sitting in a chair.

Avoid allowing your lower back to hyper-arch away from the floor but also do not flatten your lower back down – try to find a neutral curve in your lower back. At the same time, bring your hands to the skin to the inside of your hip points. Feel for narrowing the frontal hip points and drawing the lower belly in and up. Both these actions will ensure that the transverse abdominals and the multifidi are switching on.

Inhale, and as you exhale lower your right foot towards the floor, tapping the toes whilst keeping the knee bent and minimising any movment in the lower back or hips. On an inhale return to the starting position. Continue going side-to-side for about 1 minute.

If this proves difficult to control and your lower back is starting to over-arch or your abdominals start to bulge out, explore not lowering the legs as far, maybe hovering the foot a few inches from the floor as you lower.

Alternatively if this becomes easy and you want more challenge try straightening out the leg that you lower, floating the leg 1-2 inches off the floor, all the while keeping your lower back, hips and torso still and steady.

 

Toe Taps

 

 

Bird-dog

Start in an all-fours position. Knees hip-width apart and hands under your shoulders with the fingers spread and knuckles rooting into the mat. Gently draw the shoulder blades down the back away from your ears.

Feel for bringing your spine into a neutral position (use a mirror if needed) with its natural, neutral curves intact. Become aware of a long line of energy from the crown of your head out to your tailbone.

To engage the the lower abdominal muscles imagine you are narrowing your waist as if to tie up a belt a couple of extra notches, and at the same time zipper the lower belly from the pubic bone up to the naval. Maintain this abdominal bracing as you continue to breathe steadily in and out through your nose.

Keeping your lower back long in neutral (don’t allow it to overarch), on an inhale slide your right leg back behind you. Lift the leg only as far as you can whilst maintaining length in your lower back and keeping your hips square to the floor.

For more challenge you can reach the opposite arm forwards, spinning the palm to face inwards (like you’re going to shake someone’s hand) keeping the shoulders away from the ears.

Hold for 5 breaths. As you next exhale lower the right leg (and arm if lifted) back to the starting position. Inhale to switch sides. You can also vary this work by moving more fluidly with the breath, going side-to-side for about 1 minute.

Bird-dog

 

Image credits: Tummee 

A Yoga Sequence to build Core and Lower Back Strength

This core and lower back yoga sequence is inspired by Week 1 of my 6-Week Yoga for Strength & Conditioning Course. This week’s practice is designed to strengthen and condition the abdominals, muscles of the lower back, glutes and hipflexors.
When we talk about ‘the core’ in yoga, in reality we’re talking about a lot more than just the muscles that make up the abdominals. From a therapeutic perspective when I work on a client’s core I also address the strength and condition of their back muscles, hip-flexors, glutes, pelvic floor and adductors. Essentially all the muscles that help to keep the hips, pelvis, and lower back stable and supported as we move our arms and legs about in everyday movements.
For a printable version of the sequence click here.

 

There are a few key components that help with developing and maintaining core stability. I will be discussing each of these points in more detail in later blog posts but for now:

1) Breathe using your diaphragm
 When you breathe in feel your lower, floating ribs expand outwards front-to-back and side-to-side. When you breathe out, feel the lower, floating ribs hug in towards the center of your body front-to-back and side-to-side.
2) Strengthen the Transverse Abdominis and Pelvic Floor
 To access the Transverse Abdominis which is the deepest layer of the abdominal core (and a key muscle in lower back stability and health particularly post-injury) each time you exhale, imagine you’re drawing the two frontal hip bones towards the belly button. This should have the action of drawing the naval gently back towards the spine and firming the lower belly.

To access the pelvic floor envisage a diamond-shaped muscle that lies right at the base of the pelvic bowel spanning from the pubic bone at the front, to the tailbone at the back and from the two sit-bones left-to-right. As you exhale, imagine you’re drawing these four points towards each other. This will have the action of drawing the pelvic floor muscles slightly in and up towards the abdominal cavity.

3) Correct forward head positioning 
It’s easiest to develop core stability and control when we have good postural habits. Many of us have the tendency to sit and stand with our heads to far forwards which can disrupt our spine and hip positioning. To correct this, stand against a wall with your heels about 1″ away from the wall and your buttocks and back against the wall. Draw your shoulder blades and the back of your head to rest against the wall so that your ears stack over your shoulders. Notice what it feels like to be situated on this plumb-line with the crown of the head directly over the heels.
4) Develop contralateral, cross mid-line movement (e.g. crawling, or in this sequence Balancing Table Pose and Locust Pose Variation One Leg and Arm)
Movements and poses that exercise muscles on opposite sides of the body from one another are a very effective to develop core stability as well as enhance balance and proprioception. These movements often mimic the more realistic day-to-day movements we make throughout our day making them ideal functional exercises to incorporate into a yoga practice.
A couple of practice pointers for the sequence below:

– This sequence is designed for students who are injury-free and who are not pregnant. If you have lower back pain or injury some of the movements in this sequence may not be suitable.

 
– Make sure that you breathe deeply and evenly throughout the sequence. Come out of the pose if you feel any pain or if you find that you are holding your breath.

 

– The poses can be practiced with a combination of fluid movements and longer holds. For a stronger sequence stronger hold the more challenging poses for up to 5 breaths before transitioning to the next pose. You can also repeat more challenging movements or poses a number of times through for more intensity.

 

– There are several progressive options in this practice – start with the easiest version of the pose first and progress to the version that leaves you comfortably challenged whilst maintaining smooth, even breathing. For example start with knees down in your plank position until you feel strong and stable enough to explore lifting the knees for full plank.

 

– For best results, practice this sequence 2-3 times a week and remember building strength takes time, so be patient and above all enjoy the journey of exploring your body one yoga practice at a time.

 

 

Hope you enjoy and feel free to leave feedback/comments below. Stay tuned for next week’s sequence where we focus on glute and hip strength. 😀
 
Thanks to Tummee for the amazing sequencing software!