“a bad back is a weak core”
Rather than use the terms core stability or back care I’d rather talk about the strength of both. There is nothing wrong with caring for your back or a stable core but it gives the wrong impression of how the body really works.
The best core exercises are total body exercises such as movements found in sports or functional exercises e.g. a squat. However, for many people, rehabilitation of the core is needed before it works properly in these total body movements. In fact it is dangerous to do functional exercises without a fully functioning core, hence the injury rate rate in activities such as Crossfit.
Core training is best as a continuum of progressive training such as:
Core activation – generally mat based exercises
Core coordination – pressure/biofeedback monitoring – see below
Core Stability – often with a stability ball
Functional Exercise – generally standing
Fun training – often in the air
Daily life / Sports
& then back to the beginning
Gone are the days of crunches and sit-ups as they cause imbalances, exacerbate most peoples’ postural problems (rounded shoulders/kyphosis) and actually cause backpain. Planks, the new exercise to take over from sit-ups, are good for stability but this skill must then be transferred into the mobility needed for sports and everyday life.
Core activation is helped by a drawing in of the tummy, but this must be balanced with a relaxation of the tummy for inhalation. You do not want to be walking around all day in the ‘beach pose’ with the tummy sucked in! The core/tummy responds well to movement both in and out.
The above is a picture I took on a factory tour last year. It states the exact opposite of what is good for your back. The ‘incorrect’ version looks like a perfect deadlift to me, using a neutral spine and good biomechanics! The ‘correct’ version, although it looks like a good technique for a squat, it is biomechanically inefficient. The body is always about efficiency, so work with it, not against it. This is further backed up with a candid chat with the factory boss who says that, although taught in health and safety, employees never fully do the the ‘correct’ squat lift.
Use it or lose it – you do not get stronger by not using something, so the idea of not using your back when lifting heavy objects is crazy. Gone are the days of prescribed bed rest for backpain, it is now all about movement. But, take this a stage further from just movement and actively use your back to lift in everyday life.
However, the problem comes when you haven’t used your back or core properly for a while and the muscles have become deactivated (gone to sleep) and atrophied (got smaller) while the arms and legs have got relatively stronger. This is where it is best to have a health professional conduct an assessment and prescribe a corrective exercise / rehabilitation programme. The majority of gym work is rehabilitation and the purpose of it is to make you anti-fragile i.e. something that gets stronger from the random stresses placed on it (see Anti-fragile blog).
However, the good exercises to start with are:
1 Lower Abdominal Coordination
Why: This exercise is designed to see if you have the core coordination and control to choose what position to put the rest of your body in. A force will come from an extremity (legs or arms), into your core. The response from your core will then decide the best position for your extremities to deal with the next force. If you have no core control, your spine will move in time with your extremity and will not be able to choose the best position, for example, keeping your knee in line with your feet. This will lead to reduced efficiency (fitness), poor performance and injury. This is an ‘isolation exercise’ to rehabilitate the core, which means you need to be able to perform it well, but once you can perform it, you do not need to do the exercise anymore as it will be incorporated in more functional exercises (see Section 4).
How: Lie with your back on the floor. Place the widest part of one hand facing down, in the small of your back, directly behind your tummy button. Bring both legs up, off the floor with your knees at right angles. Draw your tummy button down by about one third (naval towards spine) and flatten back into your hand with about 50% pressure. Move legs, keeping 90 degrees at the knee towards the floor, maintaining that 50% pressure on your hand.
For more accuracy than just feeling pressure on your hand, you can use a pressure cuff (such as one for measuring blood pressure, called a sphygmomanometer, which is easy and cheap to purchase online but not easy to pronounce). Use the pressure cuff instead of your hand, pumping it to 40mmHg of pressure and then add another 30mmHg by pressing your lower back down into the cuff for the exercise – so keep at 70mmHg. (If you have a flat lower back pump to 70mmHg and keep at 100mmHg).
Progressions (and Regressions):
LA1 – Feet on floor with no leg movement
LA2 – One leg in air, one leg on floor, one leg moving
LA3 – Two legs in air but only one leg moving at a time
LA4 – Two legs in air, two legs moving (as above and test level)
LA5 – Same as above but standing
LA6 – On floor but with straight legs
2 Stability Ball Roll-out
Why: Links upper and lower body and stabilises your inner core. You can adjust pressure to ensure perfect technique thereby recruiting the key inner core stabilisers. If it’s too hard you’ll revert to the bad habits of recruiting your outer core only.
How: Kneel on the mat with your elbows on a stability ball. Move your body forward ensuring the angles at your shoulders and hips are the same. Hold for 10 seconds in a position where you can feel the activation of your tummy muscles but no aching or pain in your lower back.
Progressions: Imagine your elbows are a pencil and move them to ‘draw’ letters and words.
These exercises are also on the free videos – Phase 1