The Best Core Workout to Protect Your Spine
NEW YORK — For true balanced back health, your spine has to not only be stable, it has to be flexible — whether you are an accomplished athlete, a mom pushing a stroller or a UPS worker heaving boxes all day.
The pelvis and lumbar spine, the lower part of the back, are for most people a highly mobile portion of our skeleton — while the thoracic spine, the upper back and rib cage area tends to be tighter and less mobile. As a result, the key to balanced posture for most of us is to identify and correct imbalances in the strength and mobility of each segment of our spine and pelvis — by stabilizing the lumbar and mobilizing the thoracic.
In the first part of this two-part series, we focus on stabilization with the help of the transverse abdominis (TA), the unsung hero of true core strength.
In this second installment of the series, we focus on mobilization.
"In order to have ideal function of mobility, you have to start from stability, [followed by] continual contraction throughout an ideal range of motion," says Matt McCulloch, director of Kinected, an integrative Pilates studio in Chelsea.
So let's look now at how to access all the muscles of the core to effectively and efficiently build endurance, strength and coordination in your whole body, creating a truly balanced physique.
The easiest way to learn pelvic tilts is lying flat on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat. Once you have mastered it in this supine position, try them standing up or sitting on a stability ball.
There are three pelvic positions you will be moving in and out of when performing pelvic tilts.
1. Neutral pelvis: Lie flat on your back with your pubic bone and front hip points level with each other and your tailbone pointing directly toward your heels. In the more advanced position, standing or sitting upright, your tailbone should point straight down to the floor. This is the protective position that you want to maintain when your body is transferring force. (The core stabilizing exercises from Part 1 address how to do that.)
2. Anterior tilt: Starting from neutral pelvis, tip your tailbone back and down behind you, putting an exaggerated arch into your lumbar spine. If you are lying on your back, your tailbone should tilt down into the floor beneath you. If you are standing in anterior tilt, your tailbone points slightly back behind you.
3. Posterior tilt: Returning to neutral pelvis, flatten the natural curve in your lumbar spine, or lower back, pressing it flat into the floor. There should be no space between your lower vertebrae and the floor, and your tailbone should tuck upward. When you are standing in this position, your tailbone should curl forward between your thighs. You can accentuate this position by squeezing your glutes (gluteals) or clenching your buttocks, but be careful not to overuse the glutes here. We are targeting abdominals, not glutes.
The exercise: Start lying on your back, knees bent and feet flat. Beginning with a neutral pelvis, move into anterior tilt as you inhale. With an exhale, pass through neutral and move into posterior tilt. Repeat this several times maintaining the scooped abdominals regardless of which pelvic position you are in.
In cat-cow, you mobilize the pelvis along with the whole spine. Since the upper back is naturally the least mobile part of our spine while the lower back tends to be the most mobile, the key is to "slow down and really focus on articulating evenly through the entire spine," McCulloch explained. This segmental mobilization is needed in order to have the correct firing pattern between all muscles of the core, he added. As you perform cat-cow, notice where you feel tightness along the spine, and where you have more — perhaps even too much — mobility.
Begin on your hands and knees. Bring your pelvis into neutral (pubic bone and hip points are on the same plane) and align the base of your skull with your tailbone so that your complete spine is in neutral position too.
For cat pose, use your abdominals to flex your spine, rounding it up toward the ceiling, a bit like a hissing cat with the hair on its back standing up. Drop your head and tailbone down and bring your pelvis into a posterior tilt.
For cow pose, drop your belly and arch your spine downward toward the floor, lifting your head and tailbone high, a bit like the downward slope of a cow's spine. Even though your back is arched (extended) don't let go of the abdominals completely. Continue to gently pull your navel in and up, using TA to hold your organs up against your spine even as the spine is arching downward. Once you have the positions, add the breath — exhale into cat and inhale into cow.
Pilates Crunch, a.k.a. Inside-out Crunch
In this version of the traditional crunch or curl up, you engage your TA and keep it engaged (see TA breath from Part 1) as you also contract the Rectus Abdominis by nodding your head forward and drawing your ribs toward your hips. If your belly falls out loose as you crunch up then you have lost your TA contraction, so be sure to keep your belly button pulled in tight to the spine as you curl off the floor. It's imperative to exhale as you perform the contraction to keep the TA engaged.
The odd name for this exercise refers to the fact that a Barbie doll can move her arms at the shoulder joint but she cannot move her spine, and that is essentially what you do here.
Start by lying flat on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Scoop your abdominals and establish a posterior pelvic tilt so that your lumbar spine is on the floor. Now raise your arms 90 degrees to your body with your palms facing each other. As you exhale, bring your thumbs toward the floor, reaching over your head. Maintain the posterior tilt and keep your abdominals scooped in for the entire movement. When you can't reach over your head toward the floor anymore without letting your back arch, then use an inhale to bring your arms back up to the start position. Repeat a few times.
You will likely feel a stretch through your back, shoulders or arms as you reach your end range of motion. Your range of motion will grow with each mindful repetition, training your lumbo-pelvic region to stabilize even as the muscles around your ribcage stretch.
Lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat, perform a posterior pelvic tilt by flattening your lumbar spine down and scooping the abdominals (see Part 1). Maintain this pelvic position as you peel your spine up from the floor one vertebrae at a time, beginning with the lower lumbar and continuing up to lift the vertebrae at the base of the ribs. As your hips lift, you will find that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the posterior pelvic tilt and scoop position. If you don't keep your abdominals engaged, your lower back will arch. Resist that tendency and stay tucked and scooped as your spine peels away from the floor one segment at a time.
When you can no longer maintain the posterior tilt, it's time to roll back down one vertebrae at a time. McCulloch says this "controlled movement through eccentric contraction" is challenging for most people and crucial to preventing injury. You may even find your core and hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh trembling somewhat but don't worry, this is a good sign that you're taxing your muscles safely. Doing this movement correctly you will also feel your hamstrings working in the back of the thigh. As bipedal beings, we tend to overuse our quadriceps — the muscles at the front of our thighs — so hamstring work like this is key to achieving good muscular balance.
Each of these exercises opens and strengthens the neurological pathways from your brain to deep core muscles. To further awaken these connections, McCulloch recommends creating an unstable environment during the exercises. Try putting your feet or legs on a physio-ball during pelvic tilts or articulating bridge, or your hands on an inverted BOSU, flat side up, during cat-cow. The added instability triggers a stronger isometric contraction of the lumbar stabilizing muscles as you work to build deeper control over your mobility.
Once these basic exercises are mastered, it's time to start mindfully activating the deep core muscles in a variety of daily activities. For example, notice how you can use them to help bring you from a sit to a stand by exhaling and engaging your TA as you stand up. Doing the same thing as you climb stairs will train your body to shift some of the work away from the legs and back and into the "powerhouse" core muscles. When you weight train, perform a TA breath on every repetition, exhaling on the hardest part of the movement to stabilize the spine and help your muscles coordinate to move the weight efficiently. As you learn to apply your newfound strength to your daily activities, you'll find that the improved quality of your movements leads to an improved quality of life.